Jon and Ali Newell dine with his parents and siblings last month at King Eider’s Pub, with all their phones sealed in a to-go container. The pub is running a special on Tuesday and Sunday nights through April. If diners lock their phones up for the entire meal, they get a discount on their bill. Jon Newell said his father, Rick Newell, is the family’s biggest phone offender. “I’m doing this now to prove that I can,” Rick Newell responded. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Rick Newell and his wife, Deb, live in Newcastle and dine regularly at King Eider’s Pub down the road in Damariscotta. But a recent Tuesday night visit was special: The couple was there to celebrate a rare night out with their three adult children and daughter-in-law, no grandchildren in tow to distract them.

It was the kids’ idea. They had read about a new promotion the pub was running called the Disconnect and Reconnect Challenge, and they wanted their 68-year-old dad to take it on. Every Tuesday and Sunday between 4 and 9 p.m., the pub challenges its customers to lock away their cellphones so they aren’t distracted by the texts, emails and alerts that keep them from socializing with friends and family over dinner. Newell’s children wanted him to take the challenge “because I’m one of those people who really struggles at turning his phone off,” he said.

So the family allowed their server to put all their devices into a take-out container and tape it shut so there could be no fudging. If they made it through dinner without peeking, they would get 20 percent off their check.

“If you break the seal,” says Todd Maurer, owner of the pub, “you don’t get the deal.”

Hang up

King Eider’s isn’t the only Maine restaurant that is trying to help diners loosen their grips on their phones, even if it’s just for a couple of hours. Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast in Bar Harbor, a seasonal restaurant, made its dining room a cellphone-free zone four years ago. And the owners of Ishi Ishi, a nine-seat ramen bar expected to open Friday on Washington Avenue in Portland, plan to ask customers to deposit their phones in a locker while they slurp their noodles. Their numbered locker key will do double duty as their order number.

These restaurateurs say it’s important for people to have a place where they can socialize without interruption, or bond over food without having to listen to phone alerts dinging all through dinner.

“I think people can take 15 to 20 minutes out of their day and eat a meal in peace,” said Matt De Fio, chef/owner of Ishi Ishi.

De Fio says the cellphone ban reflects the Japanese tradition of focusing on the food in front of you. But he also has to turn those nine seats over quickly, and keeping customers off their phones will help do that, since they’ll be eating instead of sending texts.

Susan and Bryon Saunders of Ellsworth, the owners of Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast, don’t enforce their cellphone ban if they think a table is just using their phone to plan their day on Mount Desert Island. But if a phone user is loud, Susan Saunders says, or not paying attention as she tries to transfer the rows of hot plates balanced on her arms onto the table, she’ll point out the notice printed at the bottom of the sheet listing the day’s specials: “This is a cell phone-free restaurant. Please be courteous and put your phone away.”

“Sometimes,” she said, “they’ll roll their eyes at me and throw their phone down or something.” More often, they’ll apologize and take their call outside before returning to the dining room to eat their blueberry pancakes or smoked salmon slider.

“It’s a family restaurant,” Saunders said. “We want you to take an hour of the day, look at each other and have a discussion. What was happening was, all the heads were down.”

Snapchat v. friendly chat

When King Eider’s customers started requesting Wi-Fi a couple of years ago, Maurer resisted at first, but ultimately allowed it. It wasn’t any specific gripe about technology use at the pub that led to the Disconnect and Reconnect Challenge, he said; it was when he was traveling for a wedding he attended in November. Out to dinner with his wife one night, he noticed that everyone in the restaurant was on their phones. It opened his eyes and made him start examining his own behavior.

“Even in my own household, my wife and I are sitting down to dinner and I’ve got my phone right on the table, handling text messages,” he said. “And I said, ‘Oh my god, I’m addicted to it.’ ”

Maurer put his pub up for sale in January. He’s looking for a buyer who will treat his employees well and respect the King Eider’s history as a community gathering place. He has always believed that what makes his pub special “is just walking in and forgetting what happened outside.” So he decided to do the no-phone challenge on Tuesday nights. The discount that comes with it is on a sliding scale; the bigger the group of diners, the larger the discount. It starts with a 10 percent discount for one to two guests and goes up to 30 percent off for a group of 10 or more. Maurer later started offering the same deals on Sunday nights because some customers said they couldn’t make it on Tuesdays. The promotion will run through April 28.

“Do you prefer Snapchat instead of a friendly chat?” a poster advertising the challenge says. “If you do, this is not for you.”

Another poster urges diners to “Just Pretend It’s 1995.”

Diners who take the challenge must turn their phones completely off, not just silence them. Smart watches must go into the take-out container as well. The taped-up container stays right on the table so the customers won’t freak out seeing their cellphone walk out of sight.

“We’ve had some people who say, ‘No, I can’t do it,’ ” said the pub’s manager, Jed Weiss. “We’ve definitely had some disgruntled teenagers because their parents made them do it, which is a lot of fun. And they just sit there and hang their heads.”

Over dinner at King Eider’s Pub, Heather and Chris Leeman, who are estate caretakers, said they could not participate in the pub’s phone challenge because they depend on their phones to alert them to any problems at the homes they look after. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Most people who refuse, though, have a legitimate excuse – they have a babysitter at home who might need to call, for example, or they are expecting an important call from work. Chris Leeman of New Harbor is a building contractor, and he and his wife, Heather, also work as caretakers for summer homes on the midcoast. “I have to be connected at all times with alarms and all kinds of stuff,” he said.

The Leemans had to turn down the pub’s phone challenge on the Tuesday they visited, but would they take it some other time? “Absolutely,” Leeman said, joking that “two hours would be better for me.”

Leeman said if they had known about the challenge ahead of time, they would have asked their son to be on call, so they could enjoy their meal in cellphone-free peace. “Now that I know what it’s all about,” he said, “I can plan ahead. It’s a great way to disconnect. That way you can focus on each other and have good conversation instead of having all these distractions.”

No one who has tried the challenge so far has succumbed to temptation and broken the seal, Maurer said. With nothing else to do while they wait for their food, they talk to each other. “Our dining room is louder than it has been in years,” Maurer said.

Call around

Some restaurateurs are fine with diners using cellphones because they say they haven’t witnessed any serious phone abuse. Paige and Chris Gould, owners of Central Provisions and the neighborhood restaurant Tipo, both in Portland, are among those who say it hasn’t been an issue. Birch Shambaugh and Fayth Preyer, owners of Woodford Food & Beverage in Portland, say their customers tend to manage their technology use respectfully.

Others fall somewhere in the middle. Jesse Bania, manager at Solo Italiano in Portland, said the restaurant doesn’t generally run into many problems with phones. But when the issue does come up, it’s usually when people are taking photos and updating their social media, or trying to occupy their fidgety kids with phones and tablets. In the first instance, Bania said, “that’s a tricky thing because people are inherently doing implicit marketing for you. That’s kind of the modern word of mouth. It’s not something that we’ve felt we’ve wanted to outright stop.”

In the case of kids using technology, the restaurant would like to be family-friendly, Bania said, since we live in an age when families have limited time together and limited access to child care. So the Solo Italiano host will occasionally offer a toy to a child, or materials for drawing. “In a traditional Italian household,” Bania said, “people are coming together around food, young and old, and devices are never a factor.”

Matt Chappell, owner of Gather in Yarmouth, a restaurant with communal dining tables, says he has no overt policy on cellphone use. “Personally, I don’t allow my own kids to use their phones if we’re going to go out to eat or if we’re at home eating,” he said. “It’s not the right place for it. I’m certainly not going to tell my customers that they can’t use their phone.”

But he has thought about the issue, and it’s one of the reasons he chose not to have any screens in the restaurant, not even a TV over the bar. “It’s just too easy to let your eyes wander over,” he said, “and also it encourages the people you’re eating with to hop on their phones.”

It’s also one reason he created a children’s corner where kids can play, draw or read while their parents dine and visit with friends. He says he’s found it minimizes the use of tablets to keep kids entertained.

What the research shows

The restaurants that do restrict cellphone use say they are doing it mostly for broader social reasons – not to discourage the use of technology, exactly, but to encourage dialogue and interaction. And they may be onto something, if you look at the research of Kostadin Kushlev, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University who has studied cellphone use in restaurants and how it impacts the dining experience.

Kushlev co-authored a study published in 2018 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found using phones in a group setting at a restaurant can make diners feel more tense, distracted and bored than if they dined without the devices.

The researchers invited 304 participants to share a meal with family or friends at a restaurant they’d partnered with for the study. The diners were randomly assigned to one of two groups: Half were told to silence their phones and put them in a lock box for the duration of the meal; the other half could keep their phones on the table, notifications and ringers on, but they weren’t explicitly told that it was OK to use the phones. The researchers recorded their interactions and interviewed the diners about their experiences after they finished their meal.

“We basically found that when people have their phones at the table, they enjoy their experience at the restaurant slightly less than when they kept their phones away,” said Kushlev, who expressed surprise at how closely the King Eider Pub’s challenge resembled the study. “It’s not so much that phones are ruining dinner or ruining their social interactions, it’s just made it slightly less enjoyable.”

Add up these experiences over time, Kushlev continued, and “it probably adds up to a less enjoyable life, but they aren’t huge effects. I guess I would say that given the findings, it’s something worth considering.”

King Eider’s Pub on Main Street in Damariscotta is a popular community gathering place. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Making a difference

The King Eider’s Pub experiment and the other cellphone bans have made a difference in the lives of those who have participated. Rick Newell was used to keeping his phone on the table when he went to the pub so he could check his email and read comments that others posted on his Facebook page. During his phone challenge, he says, “I wasn’t sneaking any glances, I wasn’t seeing if anything had popped up, I wasn’t rising to any political banter that had popped up on Facebook.”

He admits that when he got his phone back, he felt a certain sense of relief, “but on the other hand, I didn’t turn it on immediately. I was glad we did (the challenge). I would do it again.”

When he got home, he sent a message to Maurer, thanking him for the experience.

Susan Saunders, owner of Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast, says she now leaves her phone in her car when she goes out to eat.

Kushlev says that studying this issue has made him more aware that even a small distraction might derail the dinner conversation, so he tries not to bring his phone to the table. “But I do indulge sometimes,” he said.

Jed Weiss, the manager at King Eider’s, said the challenge has made him more aware of his own habits, and he’d like to put his own phone in a box “and keep it there for a couple of weeks.” He’s considering bringing the challenge back this summer, but in the meantime, after this promotion is over in April, he may return to what he did before – when a table of diners is “already nose deep in their phones and they won’t even take the menu from you.”

Weiss tells them all to put their phones in the middle of the table. Then he says: “The first one who touches their phone pays the bill.”


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