Choosing your patrons: A cautionary tale

Shortly after we moved to Mountain View nine years ago, we started walking to dinner every Saturday night–either some place really close (0.7 miles each way), some or one of many further away (about 1.2 miles to Los Altos, about 1.5 miles to downtown Mountain View).

For a while, there was really only one “nearby” restaurant: a local pizza parlor that also happened to produce really good food–calzones with no grease on the plate, pizzas with vibrant flavors, a small assortment of very well made Italian dishes. Local (not part of a chain), and a “neighborhood pizza place” to the extent of sponsoring youth soccer teams and having a banquet room where various kids-league teams would hold end-of-season dinners.

We went there anywhere from once every two weeks to once a month–more often in the winter (when the longer walks are less desirable), a little less often once we discovered that the Chinese restaurant in the same neighborhood center was really quite good.

The last year or so, we started encountering situations where we really couldn’t enjoy our meal: In addition to the big group in the banquet room, there would be another big group in the main dining room, with parents making no efforts to keep their kids from shouting. So, for a while, we’d call before going, ask if there were going to be multiple parties coming in during the time we were planning, and plan accordingly.

That started breaking down a couple of months ago and finally broke down entirely last Saturday. First we’d call and the person answering the phone either didn’t understand my question (being only marginally English-speaking) or just said “No problem.” We’d arrive, the place would be intolerably loud with parties that had made reservations, and we’d go eat Chinese food.

Last Saturday, we called. The person wouldn’t or couldn’t answer the question. We went over. Walking in, we asked; the hostess said “Just one party, and it’s in the banquet room.” Good enough. We ordered.

And the kids started trooping in. By and large, the kids moved along to the banquet room, but some of the parents wanted to stand around with their kids, and one of the kids was literally whooping every few seconds. (Eventually, that parent took the kid outside…and then came back a couple of minutes later, and the whooping resumed.) But as it turned out, this time the kids weren’t the main problem–or at least not the underage kids.

This time, apparently many of the parents didn’t want to be with their kids. So they stood three-deep around the “bar” (beer and wine, but they weren’t ordering anything), talking loudly and MORE LOUDLY and EVEN MORE LOUDLY as more of them gathered. (There was about 3 feet between the bar and the booths; we retreated to the most distant booth, 6 feet away, but that made no difference.)

We could not and did not enjoy the meal. We finished it, paid (yes, with a good tip), and left. And my wife said “We’re not going back. Ever.” I can’t disagree.

The owner has obviously chosen to give precedence to big groups–and not to make any effort to remind them that it’s also a restaurant and that others may not be as excited as they are. I think that used to be different. As my wife said, it’s probably the right decision–for the 12 weekends/24 days a year when there are team banquets. But if enough regular customers feel the way we do, it may not be such a hot decision for the other 288 days. Used to be, we’d see half a dozen or more couples and family groups there when we were there. This time? One other couple, and they didn’t look real happy either. (This is actually passing strange, since the owner also recently switched from one-sheet paper menus to nice multipage menus with an expanded menu–seemingly trying to attract the same diners he’s driving away.)

I noted that, the previous Saturday when I’d planned to have lunch at the Chinese place, there was a sign on the door: “Banquet in progress. Takeout only.” Those owners decided that they really couldn’t handle both at the same time, and didn’t attempt to. Unquestionably, they would have answered a phoned question correctly…and we would have come back another day.

Library implications? Maybe. Meredith Farkas posted about her husband’s experience seeing a favorite magazine go bad because it shifted its attention and resources to the web. (An excellent post, by the way, which you should go read if you haven’t already.) Part way through, Farkas adds this note:

(Aside: As I’m writing this, I realize this offers another lesson that librarians need to heed. While it’s important that we provide better services for teens and those in their early 20s, we shouldn’t do it at the expense of services to the rest of our patrons. We do not want to lose that core audience any more than we want to lose the Gen Y folks.)

Yep. Don’t look for a denunciation of gaming in libraries here because such a mass denunciation would be as absurd as saying that every library needs a gaming librarian (which I’m sure nobody would actually say). But I do wonder: Are those wonderful at-the-library gaming tournaments, particularly ones with such quiet pursuits as DDR, driving out older patrons who have loyally supported the library? If so, will they come back or will they just give up–and vote against the next tax override?

I don’t know the answer. Well, that’s not true: I do know that there is no single answer. I’m sure some libraries, maybe even every single one that does these gaming nights/tournaments, have set things up so that the noise and disruption from one activity doesn’t upset the browsers and readers in the rest of the library.

But I also know that it would not be an answer to say “We need the gamers, so we’ll just have to let the old folks go.” And, just to clarify, I haven’t heard anyone say that either.

Oh, and Meredith? That magazine isn’t the only one. PC Magazine has dropped almost all specs and details from its printed reviews, substituting glossy columns and big pictures; effectively, the print magazine is now sort of a sideshow to the web version. Except, of course, that I’m not interested in the web version…and will think long and hard before renewing the print version. (After all, I get the web version free anyway…)

5 Responses to “Choosing your patrons: A cautionary tale”

  1. steven bell says:

    It just seems like parents are allowing their children to be louder, more wild, and less respectable than in the past in dining establishments. My wife have been surprised to find parents dining out with young children late in the evening, when you’d hardly expect it. We experienced bad behavior from children in pretty nice restaurants too (what were the parent thinking?).

    When our kids were young we only went out to eat at a chinese restaurant that had very little patronage (and wasn’t half bad). That way if one or both kids acted up (fortunately rare) we didn’t feel to bad about ruining anyone’s evening.

    Walt, I have a possible solution for you. Now that you are free to take a job anywhere (ok, I know that’s probably not true) you might want to move to downtown Manhattan – probably around the 30s on the east side. You will have loads more restaurants to choose from in a mile radius then you do now and some are so prohibitively expensive that even families with children don’t dare go there.

  2. walt says:

    Well, no, I’m not free to take a job anywhere–because I’m happily married, and neither of us are willing to move away from the Pacific Rim. And, incidentally, if I do walk 1.5 miles, there’s more than 70 local restaurants in a four-block area, all of them local and nearly all of them quite good. Mountain View isn’t Manhattan, but it’s not short of food choices. And somehow I just don’t think I’m a Manhattanite now or in the future…

    We don’t have this kind of problem elsewhere…and, incidentally, we’re almost never bothered by people having kids with them at dinner under normal circumstances. A couple with two or three kids, one or two of whom act up at times: That’s life, and that’s just fine with us. We expect families to dine out. We expect them to enjoy themselves.

    Forty kids and 15-20 adults, with the adults making most of the noise: That’s different. It’s bringing a party into a restaurant and making the other patrons unwanted non-guests. I don’t go to Chuck E. Cheese expecting peace and quiet or even typical family dining; I didn’t expect our local Italian restaurant/pizza place to turn into Chuck E. Cheese.

  3. Angel says:

    I agree on the parents. As I was reading your post, Walt, and got to the part where that parent took the kid out, I initially cheered. Only to find myself disappointed the kid carried on as before. Back in my day, which was not that long ago, if my father (who usually did the discipline) had to take us out of a public place for misbehaving, rest assured we would be quieter than penitents at a monastery. Apparently, what passes these days for parents just can’t be bothered to supervise their kids appropriately let alone teach them some basic common manners.

    Like Stephen, we were careful as well in going out when our little one was, well, little. But you are right, where has the thoughtfulness gone? The sense of having some consideration? Like you say Walt, Chuck E.’s is one thing. The small restaurant, that is something else.

    And I did read Meredith’s post (excellent indeed), and it did make me think about choices some companies make in terms of moving from one demographic to another while leaving the demographic that built their business behind. There is a lesson for libraries because, as you point out, for all the gaming folk, the ones who actually vote on levies and so on are the ones who some would label more “traditional.” There has to be a way to bring in new people while making sure the regulars are not forsaken, yet I often get the impression so many libraries and librarians are more than ready to do just that.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  4. Jenn says:

    Out of curiosity, have you mentioned your issue to the manager, either in person or in writing? He might like to know that he is chasing away his base customer support, which could hurt him in the long run even if he doesn’t realize it in the here and now.

    Kids really are more rude these days. I remember being afraid to move when my parents took us to restaurants: my sister and I knew there’d be hell to pay later if we did anything more obnoxious than blow bubbles in our chocolate milk (which was also forbidden, much to our consternation). Case in point, my grandparents would take my family out but rarely took out my cousins’ family because those four kids were terrors in public and had a habit of ordering the most expensive item they could find though they would hardly touch it.

    Libraries are in a quandary about this issue. One wants to post a sign on the door: “We are not your baby-sitter.” But the people who need to see that are the parents who don’t come anyway. The loud kids are the latch-key kids who are waiting the two hours or so before their parent(s) comes home from work. On the one hand, I feel sorry for them but think that they could be in worse places unattended. On the other hand, I wonder how I turned out so well with two working parents and how these kids became hooligans.

    You can’t evict them unless they do something really horrible, but if you don’t, the people who would use the library for its intended purpose won’t come. I don’t see a solution to this beyond what many convenience stores located near schools do: “Only two students at a time.” And they will kick out that third student. Perhaps it is time libraries took the upper hand and became firm about the rules of civility. Sure we believe in free speech–just as much as we believe that people are free to have self-control.

  5. walt says:

    We’ve discussed the situation with the manager/owner before. There’s generally a handwave, a suggestion that we can call beforehand, and the note that they do have the banquet room and discourage kids from running and screaming. Since the calling no longer works, and since–as noted–the problem now is with the parents more than the kids, we’ll have to let our absence speak for itself: There’s a point at which you stop repeating the same futile discussion.

    I’ll argue that, if kids are ruder, it’s because they’re empowered to be ruder by ruder parents who treat Their Little Angels as above reproach. (And I don’t think that’s all or even a majority of parents. I do wonder whether today’s overemphasized youth sports leagues bring out the worst in parents…From what I see in other mixed-use restaurants and public spaces, I do believe this is a worst-case situation for our community. We had a block party a few weeks ago; almost everyone on our block has relatively young kids; many of them were there. The kids weren’t sitting with folded hands and polite looks, but neither were the kids and parents making so much noise that you couldn’t think: It was a pleasant event.)

    And I do not, not, NOT argue that libraries should make a habit of evicting kids or teens who make a little noise. Not. My library connection–and it could easily be a wholly mythical case–is with library-organized programs that are noisy by design in spaces that don’t allow for reasonable quiet in other parts of the library, done with such frequency and in such a manner that the older supporters of the library become alienated. That doesn’t need to happen, and maybe it doesn’t happen–but it’s worth considering.

    On the other hand, I believe public libraries do, must, should encourage kids and teens to consider the libraries “their space” as well…maintaining a balance means maintaining a balance, which is hard.