Restaurants banning cellphones are ignoring one important fact: Peter Nowak

(Photo: Anthony-Masterson)

More people are eating alone than ever before. (Photo: Anthony-Masterson)

A KFC outlet in Australia is engaging in an interesting experiment: it’s banning mobile phone use by customers. The restaurant, in the Sydney suburb of Northmead, is asking visitors to put their devices into a “mobile collection bucket” for the duration of their stay.

Management says it is trying to boost morale and encourage socialization among customers.

“We noticed when our customers come in and have lunch they all look pretty lonely looking at their phones,” manager Bobby Narayan told Australia’s “(This) creates a better atmosphere.”

The move follows on similar bans or experiments by more upscale dining establishments, such as the Eva Restaurant in Los Angeles, which made headlines last year by offering customers a 5% discount if they left their devices at the door. Abu Ghosh, a restaurant in Israel, is taking that to the extreme with a 50% discount for the same.

As Scientific American has concluded, interacting without phones “seems to help foster closeness, connectedness, interpersonal trust, and perceptions of empathy—the building-blocks of relationships.”

The problem with such efforts is that they seem to run counter to several realities, the biggest of which is the fact that more people are eating alone. According to a 2012 survey, solo dining has become almost as common as eating together, with “46 per cent of all adult eating occasions are now solitary eating occasions and 40 per cent of all adult meals (excluding snacking occasions) are eaten alone.”

The report attributes this to several factors, including the big shift of mothers entering the workplace after the Second World War and the recent “snackification” of meals, “where consumers increasingly believe that eating smaller meals more frequently is healthier and that snacking bridges gaps between meals due to long work and commute times.”

Another factor is, ironically, technology. The advent of television in the 1950s and the microwave oven in the 1970s created new opportunities for people to eat alone and to be entertained while doing so. That contributed to peoples’ growing comfort with dining solo, which naturally extended outside of the house.

Restaurants—especially fast-food outlets, which are essentially refueling stations that are intrinsically geared toward non-socializing solo eaters—are probably fighting a losing battle in this sense. If anything, cellphones are likely accelerating the eating-alone trend, since no one is truly by themselves when they can access Twitter, Facebook and the rest.

Despite having the best of intentions, the only thing dining establishments are likely to accomplish by banning mobiles is shooing away business from solo customers.