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Waiter, can you take our picture? And where’s our food?

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

A smartphone is many things. At times it can be a tool, at other times a toy. It’s even a computer for some. But using the wrong one in the wrong circumstance can lead to a social slowdown rather than saving you time.

I’ve been guilty once or twice of becoming frustrated when I can’t get the attention of a bartender, for example. But upon reflection, I ask myself how long had I’d been sitting there, head down, staring at my phone, and not showing respect to the very person I only moments earlier got frustrated with for not being at my beck and call.

We sometimes walk through a busy restaurant, texting or talking on our phone, myopically unaware, giving the thankfully fleet-of-foot waitstaff yet another obstacle to navigate.

Once the bartender or server brings us what we’ve been so patiently waiting for, we defy them to find a place to set our food or drink on a crowded table now littered with smartphones, iPads, or tablets placed neatly in front of each patron.

Earlier this year, the Gothamist, a city-centric blog originating in New York City, investigated a popular restaurant that chose to remain anonymous. The writer’s hope was to decipher why the eatery was receiving an increasing amount of slow-service complaints. After several dead ends, they resorted to rooting through old surveillance tape to compare it to present-day footage. What they found was shocking: in a 10-year period, the restaurant’s average table time increased by 50 minutes.

How could this be? The service protocol had not changed, and their kitchen was as efficient as it had ever been. As they watched hours of video, something surfaced. Ten years ago, virtually no one was using phones at restaurants. The present day video revealed heavy smartphone usage. From texting, to photos of food as well as each other, peoples’ dining experiences were no longer at the forefront of their interest.

Behind the scenes, smartphones are the quintessential double-edged sword; they can be a modern tool for a cook or server, but also a tremendous distraction and time waster.

I once employed a young server named “Maria” who was part of our Bob’s Steak and Chophouse team in Austin, Texas. Maria seemed to always be on her phone when we first opened. I was initially hesitant to say anything because she was incredibly efficient at getting her work done and her station ready. But I finally confronted her about it.

“I’ve been patient, but the phone needs to go away while you’re at work,” I said.

“I’m not texting or on Facebook or anything,” she said with a self-assured smirk. “Here, look,” she said and handed me her phone.

While everyone was always grappling over or searching for the one recipe book our kitchen had, Maria had photographed every recipe in her station. She had easy access no matter where she was in the kitchen. Brilliant. We still talk to this day and just recently had a laugh over that conversation.

Now, this is not to say that there isn’t foolishness and time wasted in the workplace. But I now observe team members looking up recipes, researching terminology, and using standard-to-metric conversion apps. If used smartly and properly, a smartphone can be as useful as it can be fun.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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