A discount for a cell-phone-less meal?

EVA Restaurant in Los Angeles tries something new to get patrons to turn off their phones: a 5 percent discount on their meal.

Kai Ryssdal: You know when you're out in a restaurant and at the table next to you a cell phone rings. Or worse, your dinner partner starts texting right in front of you? Annoying, even infuriating, no? How 'bout if the restaurant gave people a discount if they gave up their phones? Maybe 5 percent off? You think that'd work?

Mark Gold owns EVA Restaurant out in West Hollywood, here in Los Angeles, and he's giving it a try. Welcome to the program.

Mark Gold: Thank you, sir.

Ryssdal: So why? How come?

Gold: We want to give people a certain experience here at EVA and we felt that the phone was a distraction.

Ryssdal: But people like their phones, Mark.

Gold: People can still use their phones. For us, we just want to suggest it. For us, it's the art of the loss conversation -- how people don't converse anymore when they sit at the table. What you see now is a cell phone on the dining room table, we're trying to get away from that.

Ryssdal: Right. So tell me how it works. You walk in, you talk to the maître d' or hostess and they say, 'Here's your choice?'

Gold: We have it printed on the bottom of the menu. So when people are seated by the receptionist, they'll sit down and they'll see the menu and it's stated on the bottom that if you voluntarily turn off your cell phone, we'll give you 5 percent off your bill tonight; as well as the server suggesting it when they approach a table.

Ryssdal: Now you have to physically give up the phone? You can't say, I'll keep it in my pocket.

Gold: That's cheating!

Ryssdal: That's right. That's right.

Gold: No. We physically take their phone, we have a basket near the front desk. We put it their name on it, we wrap it in a rubber band and upon exiting the restaurant after their meal, we hand them their phones back.

Ryssdal: Now here's the thing. Margins in restaurants are notoriously tough to begin with, so if you get enough people taking you up on 5 percent off, it could conceivably hurt you a little bit.

Gold: We might have to rethink this policy. For us, listen, I wish I was a little more business savvy in the sense of bringing in a more money to the bottom line, but for me it's just about giving the experience and that's the main reason why I opened a restaurant. I just wanted to feed people and make them happy and have them experience what we're doing here at EVA.

Ryssdal: How many people are taking you up on the offer? What portion of the house?

Gold: Right now it's about 40 percent.

Ryssdal: Yeah. That's pretty good.

Gold: That's pretty good.

Ryssdal: Now does the restaurant get louder when people are actually talking?

Gold: What?

Ryssdal: Does the restaurant get louder...

Gold: Just kidding.

Ryssdal: Yeah, very funny. Ba-da-boom. You got me. My dad used to do that to me.

Gold: It doesn't. We're a very small restaurant, we have 42 seats. It's quite intimate. It's not a loud restaurant by any means.

Ryssdal: Would you say it's upscale?

Gold: Yes, it is upscale.

Ryssdal: OK. So here's my question: If you were a pizza place, would you be doing this?

Gold: I'm sure.

Ryssdal: Oh come on, really?

Gold: Yeah because it's about family as well. When we see people bring their kids in and they put an iPad in front of them and they play games throughout the meal, that's just not connecting.

Ryssdal: Now here's the put-up-or-shut-up question: Do you do this too when you go out, you've got your nose in your phone?

Gold: Unfortunately I'm guilty. And I think that's part of the reason why I chose to do something like this is I see myself with my children at the dinner table checking to see who's called or text messaged. So for me, it's about connecting with my family again and my kids, we're very close and I just want to do the same thing for everyone.

Ryssdal: Other restaurants have tried this and have had to back off.

Gold: I don't believe anyone has taken it to the level we've taken it. I know that there's restaurants that have banned cell phones and if you look on certain other menus around town, you'll see "please refrain from using your cell phone during dinner service," but I think we've taken it a step further and actually rewarding the guest for not using their phone.

Ryssdal: You ever lost anybody's phone or had somebody take somebody else's phone?

Gold: No, not yet.

Ryssdal: Not yet, he says.

Gold: Not yet.

Ryssdal: All right. Mark Gold at EVA Restaurant out in West Hollywood here in Los Angeles. Mark, thanks a lot.

Gold: Thank you, sir.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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