Seeing groups of young people looking at their phones isn’t an uncommon sight at most bars and restaurants in Los Angeles. In fact, the ubiquity of cellphones at the table has prompted some establishments to ban phones outright or take steps to discourage their guests from getting online.
Bars and restaurants peddling an exclusive experience, such as Vespertine, E.V Kitchen and Atlas Coffee, are the first to ban phones. Old Lightning, a rare spirits bar in Venice, collects phones at the door and gives guests a valet ticket to pick up their phones on their way out.
“Old Lightning specifically is meant to be an experience – it only seats 22 people – we found that even if one or two people had phones it negatively affected the ambiance for everyone,” said Chani Hitt, 33, Director of Marketing at Old Lightning.
Pew Research Center also found that 83 percent of survey respondents feel that using a phone hurts conversation in a social setting. But 89 percent of the same respondents said they had used their phone during their most recent social gathering, most often to read a text or email, take a photo or send a text.
“Customers weren’t used to it at first, but we’ve really had no pushback. People enjoy being fully present with their friends and immersed in the experience,” Hitt said. “It allows people to connect with each other instead of just living through their phones.”
Hitt said that Old Lightning’s no phone policy started when the bar opened in 2013 and helps keep the experience memorable and fits with the bar’s speakeasy vibe. Guests are required to make email reservations in advance and are escorted to Old Lightning through a secret door.
“We want people to have respect for the experience and the quality of the product being served. They can remember what it felt like, what it tasted like, what they talked about, what it smelled like,” Hitt said.
“Recently, I went out for dinner with someone I was romantically interested in and she was constantly on the phone for the first 20 minutes or so. I didn’t like it at all,” said Kevin Grigoryan, 28, a sales assistant, living in Los Angeles.
At other bars, providing reliable internet access and encouraging phone use is part of their business plan. Three Clubs, a bar and theatre that opened before the cellphone era in 1991, recently upgraded their WiFi connection to make it easier for guests to live stream.
“In the theater, we encourage people to do Instagram stories and Facebook Live the performances,” said Michelle Hodan, Entertainment Director at Three Clubs. The bar’s hahstag, #threeclubs, has been used more than 6,000 times.
“I think it’s a great idea to not have phones in the dining rooms at restaurants,” Hodan said. “But we have a theatre with performances that people want to share. It just makes for great memories.”
A 2016 study in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, found that people who take photos of their food before eating can increase enjoyment of the food. The study suggested that marketing managers capitalize on this trend and turn social media snaps into free marketing materials.
“For us, it’s great. We reward people for checking in and posting a picture of their cocktails, it’s free marketing that shows they’re having a great time,” Hodan said.
Grigoryan added that there are “pluses and minuses” to banning phones and that he has never been to a bar that limits cell phone use, but is not opposed to the idea.
“In general, I think good cell phone etiquette is when it doesn’t hinder the social interactions you’re a part of,” Grigoryan said.