Restaurant Requires Patrons to Sign Contract Before Eating

Weve all been at the movies or out to dinner when someone nearby makes a loud call on their cell phone or checks their e-mail using a brightly-lit screen. While some people may feel that electronic interruptions are now a part of everyday life, one restaurant is aiming to change that by requiring patrons to sign a contract promising they wont use phones or PDAs in the dining room.

Theyre distracting to other guests, and we simply ask people not to use them, says RJ Cooper, executive chef and owner of Rogue 24, a fine dining restaurant in Washington, D.C. Your mom and dad wouldnt have allowed you to use a phone at the dinner table and we dont either. Even if you dont care about other patrons experiences, think about your own dining companion, sitting there being ignored while you use your phone. Its just bad manners.

The restaurant only takes reservations online and before submitting a requested date and time, diners have to sign the no-cell-phone-use contract.

Cooper says the no-tolerance cell phone policy is just one element of the restaurants terms and conditions; the contract also asks diners to confirm if they have any allergies or dietary restrictions, and that they understand the cancellation policy.

Its not like theres a lawyer standing over you when you enter the restaurant with a pen and paper, says Cooper. Its a tool we use as cooks and crafts people to give you the best experience we can give you. If you are allergic to shellfish, we can provide a menu for you. If you are someone who constantly checks your phone, we wont have to approach your table and ask you to stop.

The no-tolerance cell phone policy only exists in the Rogue 24 dining room, diners are free to use their phones in the front bar area or in the bathrooms. Cooper says that his policy doesnt differ from that of many other high-end restaurants, or even museums that dont allow loud conversations or flash photography.

The Center Club in Baltimore echoes Rogue 24s sentiments of banning phone calls. The Center Clubs General Manager John Warnack says that the dining room does not allow phone calls because the whole idea of a dining experience is to enjoy good food and good conversation with your dining companions, not with your cousin in Omaha.

Youre sitting here enjoying great views and the chef has gone to the trouble to prepare a wonderful meal, its not fair to have to endure someone elses conversation.

Warnack says that the only strange thing about an anti-cell phone policy is that they any restaurant would even need to have one. Really, it should go without saying. A nice dining room is one of the last outposts of civility in many cases. If you cant sit through a meal without using your phone, thats just sad.

The real problem is that consumers dont realize how disruptive they are when they use their phones, says Dawn Lerman, director of the Center for Positive Marketing at Fordham University.

There is a lot of emerging research that says humans really cannot multitask. When we switch our attention from what we are doing, we are not fully focusing on the matter at hand, says Lerman. From a restaurant perspective, eating is supposed to be a multisensory experience and the act of being distracted is taking away from that dining experience, whether you realize it or not. This has a whole host of ramifications, not least of which is that the diners wont get the full experience, and may end up not as satisfied with the meal and atmosphere as a result.

As for making a cell phone policy more official with a contract, Lerman says that while its unorthodox, its actually a good idea.

The fact that diners read the policy will help ensure compliance. A lot of restaurants have a similar policy but dont make people sign off when they make their reservation. These guys are just taking it one step further, but its just to avoid headaches when people come through the door. Most people would rather be notified up front than called out in the restaurant.

Lerman admits a segment of the population may be put off by the no-phones policy, but says its impossible to please everyone, and if a restaurant feels strongly about having a phone-free dining area, they should embrace it wholeheartedly. Only if a restaurant added other extreme requirements for diners would the brand be perceived as stuffy or uptight.

If the cell phone rule is part of a laundry list of other requirements diners must meet, like wearing a jacket or a dress, then the policy could be discouraging because it becomes restricting. At a certain point the restaurant is defining my experience, whereas limiting cell phone use is an enhancement to the dining experience.

Overall, a restaurant with a phone policy as strict as the one at Rogue 24 will likely benefit from the policy, as it can add some mystique to the brand, says Lerman. By restricting every-day devices, the restaurant is telling customers that the focus is on the dining experience, and that they take their creations seriously. As a result, the brand is instantly setting itself apart from other restaurants where phones are allowed, Lerner says.

Cooper says that the no-phones contract has worked well so far, but his staff isnt afraid to offer a few friendly reminders to people who forgot to read the fine print.

We had a guest on Saturday night who was watching TV. He didnt have the volume turned up, but of course, we asked him to stop. The dining room lights are dim, and anything, even a bright screen or a flash can be distracting to the rest of the room, says Cooper.

And distractions are exactly what Cooper and his staff want to avoid, he says. Dining at Rogue 24 costs between $145 and $175 per person, and at that price, Cooper says every person in the room deserves an evening full of good food and devoid of distraction.

And according to Lerner, women will appreciate the Rogue 24 dining experience the most.

Some people are selective processors and can tune out distractions around them. Others are comprehensive processors and they are always in tune with their surroundings, says Lerner. Men are more likely to be selective, while women are more likely to be comprehensive, noticing every little e-mail or text message happening with people seated around them.