Fact Check

This Restaurant Kept Getting Awful Reviews, Then They Discovered This ...

Did a busy NYC restaurant discover that customer cell phone usage was the factor behind a number of bad online reviews?

Published Nov. 18, 2014

 (milicad / Shutterstock.com)
Image courtesy of milicad / Shutterstock.com
A busy NYC restaurant kept getting awful reviews, and surveillance footage revealed the reason to be that customer smartphone use was ruining the restaurant experience.

On 10 July 2014, a post to the New York City Craigslist "rants & raves" subforum titled "Busy NYC Restaurant Solves Major Mystery by Reviewing Old Surveillance" was published and subsequently deleted. (An archived copy can be found here.) In the post, a person claiming to represent a popular and busy unnamed New York City restaurant stated the venue's numerous "mystery" poor reviews were surprisingly explained by an in-depth review of older surveillance tapes compared to ones from 2014. Since it was posted (and deleted) in July 2014, the story has traveled far and wide on the Internet, garnering more than a million cumulative shares on sites such Facebook (and has since created mistaken impressions among readers that its claims were part of a "study").

According to the original poster, a decline in customer experience ratings prompted the restaurant (which has never been identified despite widespread circulation of the claims) to hire a consultancy firm and audit their practices to discover the source of the poor reviews. The poster stated the consultants concurred with customer feedback about slow service and recommended the restaurant review "old surveillance tapes" to determine which staff practices might have prompted the decrease in diner satisfaction.

The post began by explaining the restaurant's local standing and its recent decline in customer satisfaction:

We are a popular restaurant for both locals and tourists alike. Having been in business for many years we noticed that although the number of customers we serve on a daily basis is almost the same today as it was 10 years ago, the service just seems super slow even though we added lots more staff and cut back on the menu items.

One of the most common complaints on review sites against us and many restaurants in the area is that the service was slow and or they needed to wait a bit long for a table.
We decided to hire a firm to help us solve this mystery, and naturally the first thing they blamed it on was that the employees need more training and that maybe the kitchen staff is just not up to the task of serving that many customers.

Like most restaurants in NYC we have a surveillance system, and unlike today where it's a digital system, 10 years ago we still used special high capacity tapes to record all activity. At any given time we had 4 special Sony systems recording multiple cameras. We would store the footage for 90 days just in case we need it for something.

The firm we hired suggested we locate some of the older tapes and analyze how the staff behaved 10 years ago versus how they behave now. We went down to our storage room but we couldn't find any tapes at all.

We did find the recording devices, and luckily for us, each device has 1 tape in it that we simply never removed when we upgraded to the new digital system.

The date stamp on the old footage was Thursday July 1 2004, the restaurant was real busy that day. We loaded up the footage on a large size monitor, and next to it on a separate monitor loaded up the footage of Thursday July 3 2014, the amount of customers where only a bit more than 10 years prior.

I will quickly outline the findings. We carefully looked at over 45 transactions in order to determine the data below.

First and foremost, it's possible (though perhaps not likely) this missive was genuinely written by a person who works for, manages, or owns a busy and popular restaurant in New York City. It's also possible the surveillance tape review occurred and diners in 2014 we found to behave differently from diners in 2004.

However, one curious point readers were left pondering after perusing the post's initial claims was this: The writer claimed to represent a restaurant in New York City that was both "busy" and "popular," located within a city that is home to innumerable restaurants to which those descriptors could reasonably apply. If the conclusions drawn by the poster about smartphone use in restaurants affecting customer experience were accurate, how could all those well-trafficked and well regarded New York City restaurants not be experiencing a corresponding drop in service satisfaction? Is this the only restaurant in Manhattan to see rampant cell phone use among diners?

Many readers were also skeptical about whether the approach supposedly suggested by the consultancy firm (i.e., to review old surveillance tapes) is one commonly proffered to flagging restaurants, whether restaurants are expected to archive mundane surveillance tapes for a decade or more, whether the reviewing such tapes is a useful tool for assessing staff performance on any meaningful level, and whether the conclusions drawn in the post could be accurately achieved through the claimed side-by-side footage comparison experiment.

The post's commentary described what surveillance videos from 2004 purportedly revealed and provided an average duration for transactions of approximately 65 minutes:

Customers walk in.

They get seated and are given menus, out of 45 customers 3 request to be seated elsewhere.

Customers on average spend 8 minutes before closing the menu to show they are ready to order.

Waiters shows up and almost instantly takes the order.

Food starts getting delivered within 6 minutes, obviously the more complex items take way longer.

Out of 45 customers 2 sent items back that where too cold we assume (given they were not steak we assume they wanted the item heated up more).

Waiters keep an eye out for their tables so they can respond quickly if the customer needs something.

Customers are done, check delivered, and within 5 minutes they leave.

Average time from start to finish: 1:05

The poster described an entirely different dining experience in 2014, with poorly behaved customers and their infernal technological devices implicitly to blame for creating an average elapsed time of approximately 115 minutes (an increase of 50 minutes over 2004) per visit:

Customers walk in.

Customers get seated and is given menus, out of 45 customers 18 requested to be seated elsewhere.

Before even opening the menu they take their phones out, some are taking photos while others are simply doing something else on their phone (sorry we have no clue what they are doing and do not monitor customer WIFI activity).

7 out of the 45 customers had waiters come over right away, they showed them something on their phone and spent an average of 5 minutes of the waiter's time. Given this is recent footage, we asked the waiters about this and they explained those customers had a problem connecting to the WIFI and demanded the waiters try to help them.

Finally the waiters are walking over to the table to see what the customers would like to order. The majority have not even opened the menu and ask the waiter to wait a bit.

Customer opens the menu, places their hands holding their phones on top of it and continue doing whatever on their phone.

Waiter returns to see if they are ready to order or have any questions. The customer asks for more time.

Finally they are ready to order.

Total average time from when the customer was seated until they placed their order 21 minutes.

Food starts getting delivered within 6 minutes, obviously the more complex items take way longer.

26 out of 45 customers spend an average of 3 minutes taking photos of the food.

14 out of 45 customers take pictures of each other with the food in front of them or as they are eating the food. This takes on average another 4 minutes as they must review and sometimes retake the photo.

9 out of 45 customers sent their food back to reheat. Obviously if they didn't pause to do whatever on their phone the food wouldn't have gotten cold.

27 out of 45 customers asked their waiter to take a group photo. 14 of those requested the waiter retake the photo as they were not pleased with the first photo. On average this entire process between the chit chatting and reviewing the photo taken added another 5 minutes and obviously caused the waiter not to be able to take care of other tables he/she was serving.

Given in most cases the customers are constantly busy on their phones it took an average of 20 minutes more from when they were done eating until they requested a check. Furthermore once the check was delivered it took 15 minutes longer than 10 years ago for them to pay and leave.

8 out of 45 customers bumped into other customers or in one case a waiter (texting while walking) as they were either walking in or out of the Restaurant.

Average time from start to finish: 1:55

Yet another aspect that made the story a bit suspect to many readers was the notion that "45 transactions" from 2004 and 2014 had been reviewed concurrently. It's highly unlikely the post's backstory about individual tapes salvaged from forgotten old equipment would yield footage from ten years ago that just so happened to be directly comparable to the footage on hand. (The "old equipment" bit conveniently serves to knock down questions about why a restaurant would have plenty of decade-old surveillance tapes on hand.)

The first major difference between ten years ago and today the poster cited involved customer seating requests. It's not clear what major change supposedly occurred between 2004 and 2014 which might prompt 18 out of 45 parties to request they be moved in 2014, when only three out of 45 parties did so in 2004. However, it might seem apparent that if nearly half the customers of a restaurant were requesting table swaps (which is as inconvenient and time-wasting for customers as it is for restaurant staff), an increase in customer indifference to staff was less likely the cause than factors such as a drafty entryway, construction noise, or cramped table arrangements.

Next, the post stated the 2004 diners supplied waiters with their orders in a speedy eight minutes, and six minutes after that, food began arriving to their tables; by contrast, an unspecified number of 2014 diners were distracted by their phones before even opening the menu. An additional unspecified number of diners refused to even review their menus before issues about connecting their cell phones to the restaurant's WiFi signal were resolved, with seven demanding their server immediately attend to their table to solve the issue. (It would seem unlikely that seven out of 45 customers care so much about smartphone connectivity they rely solely on public WiFi signals and carry no data plans for their phones.)

Given the lack of specificity in the post, it's difficult to assess how plausible the claims are (not to mention how provable they are). Unless the restaurant were located inside the Apple Store and solely served individuals who had just purchased brand new and novel smartphones, it doesn't seem plausible that many (if any) customers would be so entranced by their phones they'd forgo looking at menus or placing orders for an average of 21 minutes. While smartphones are certainly ubiquitous and lead to some inconsiderate user behavior, it doesn't sound all that likely that a device most of us carry on our person at all times (and even in bed) would suddenly become the most appealing thing in a restaurant.

Next, the post claimed, 26 of the 45 diners (parties?) spent an average of three minutes taking pictures of their food, which sounds excessive both in duration and scope. The practice of posting food images to social media sites probably isn't popular enough to involve more than half the diners at a given restaurant, and three minutes is an awfully long time to be photographing a still object. Nine of the 26 parties (or people) allegedly requested replacement food as their food became cold during the impromptu photo shoots described, but again, this claim treads into the extraordinary: if the phenomenon of food waste at this level in restaurants due to smartphone usage were real, then it would certainly extend past one single restaurant in New York. Surely, if human beings became more interested in phones than food when they were hungry, more restaurants would be dealing with similar complaints.

In the complaint's penultimate grievance, 2004 benchmarks are not provided. However, the poster explained, customers in 2014 spent an additional 20 minutes dallying at their tables before even requesting their checks. Then after the checks were delivered to the tables, the 45 parties (or diners) purportedly each spent 15 minutes more lingering in the restaurant than they did in 2004, presumably playing Candy Crush and ignoring one another.

Finally, the poster capped off his or her rant with a concluding statistic: of the 45 tapes reviewed (salvaged from just one of "4 special Sony systems recording multiple cameras"), eight of the diners or parties remained so absorbed in their smartphones' screens that they bumped into other customers or staff while exiting the venue. While folks texting and walking have occasionally been known to pose a nuisance, nearly a quarter of restaurant diners running into other people seems to be an excessive proposed rate of collisions.

Ultimately, no restaurant ever stepped forward to own up to the rant. It was never determined to be linked to a specific venue in New York City, and no other restaurants claimed a similar deterioration of customer behavior over the ten years between 2004 and 2014. The post could have been written by a disgruntled restaurant worker or owner; however, the way it's structured suggests the writer's gripe was not with poor reviews at a restaurant but with the technophobic belief that an increase in smartphone and social media usage is a detriment to society and social experiences. Whether or not that opinion translates to poorer restaurant reviews is not proved, nor is it supported by any evidence or study; nonetheless, the tale has proliferated due to a strong (if not subtle) inherent message that smartphone users are boorish and inconsiderate, and the devices are definitively detrimental to human behavior. More plausible than a genuine rant is an individual distaste for the widespread use of such devices couched as a shocking discovery inside one imaginary restaurant.

Even if the claims presented did stem from an actual restaurant's audit of surveillance video, a number of factors (such as location, management, pricing, or menu fluctuations) went unaddressed in the spotty analysis. An argument could just as easily be made for a positive impact on business due to smartphone proliferation: a number of diners now locate their next restaurant experience on the fly using geolocation-enabled apps and pay for dinner with their phones. Additionally, it's not uncommon for customers to boost a venue's profile or reach by sharing glowing reviews on social media sites and posting images of enticing dishes that basically serve as free advertising. And there's no reason why, if such devices were truly as disruptive as the poster described, this nuisance wouldn't measurably extend into social spaces beyond dining establishments.

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