Phone Breaks vs. Cigarette Breaks

Okay. You tell me what you think.

After I tell you what I think.

Most (all?) restaurants have strict moratoriums on employees checking their cell phones during the shift. Which is totally sensible. How is the guest being served by the waiter looking at text messages (and even responding) during the crush hours? Filling waters, taking orders, clearing plates, running side work could all be accomplished during this 60-120 second interval.

For me, however, cell phone checking does not happen during the crush. When I am working, I am working. If there is even one immediate task to be done, that takes priority. Always (well, almost always).

There are other approaches though. Every waiter has seen another with his head cocked down, hands in an approximate praying posture, tapping a smart phone in the side station during the height of the dinner hour. As usual, these are the exceptions who provide the odious rule to everyone else. There was once a time when Michael’s issued a ban on waiters tasting guests’ wine – even when offered by the guest (I guess it would always be a problem if the guest didn’t offer). All because someone somewhere in the organization got drunk partying with a table and did something stupid. We all know having a sip of the guests’ wine is a very positive moment in the experience (for all of us). It gives us a chance to commend them on their wine (corkage’d or not), and to further reinforce our connection with them. It helps build repeat customers and encourages them to feel like family in the restaurant. And, yes, it increases our tips.

But anyway, the universal rule is no cell phones on the job. What would be analogous? How about having your girlfriend sitting on a stool in the service bar the whole shift? Definitely distracting, having to argue about why you don’t empty the dishwasher, every time you come to pick up a couple of Jack and Cokes. Or worrying that she’s flirting with the younger, better-looking waiter who models part-time when he’s at the well collecting Cabernets.

So, yeah, it makes sense.

But, not surprisingly, I have a different take on it. First, the phone problem mainly concerns those who keep it in their pockets. It’s impossible to resist that buzz on the thigh – like your girlfriend feels every time that younger waiter comes into the service bar – when the phone goes off. You have to at least check it. And there we go onto the slippery slope.

I defeat this problem by not keeping it in my pants (one of the few times you’ll read this as the best solution). I leave my phone on a ledge somewhere. For me, this is in the coffee station (at Michael’s, that is – at Carney’s it’s too small a place and the owner is always roaming around, so you just . . . don’t . . . dare . . . check your phone until she’s lodged in a bar seat with her vodka/soda at the end of the rush ). My phone can do whatever it wants and, if I’m busy, I do not pay it any attention. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. But when everything is under control and I have a few moments to breathe, yes, I can power up the screen and see what has happened while I was wasting my time making a living.

My M.O. (modus operandi in Latin, for mode of operation) at such points in the shift is mostly read-only. Sometimes, though, as we all know, there are longer moments of downtime vs. others. If I have another 2 minutes to spare and need/want to answer a text – and think I can avoid falling under the gaze of a manager – I will tap something out in response.

All’s good, I believe. Of course, corporate honchos do not believe the same thing. We often read that research shows, for instance, that on-the-job internet surfing, texting, whatever, costs businesses 100,000 hours of productivity per annum, which translates to at least $100,000 – considering the actual productivity of most workers I know.

Obviously, this threat did not exist 10 years ago. It needs to be stamped out. Right?

Here’s the thing: waiters slacking during short intervals of downtime is nothing new. It’s as old as the Verbal Tip, or managers banging hostesses, or . . . the smoke break.

Why is the smoke break sacrosanct?

Imagine yourself in the middle of the rush and the manager discovers you sitting in the linen closet, just staring at the ceiling.

‘What the fuck are you doing? The wait’s an hour and a half. And we got hot food on the line!’

‘Nothing much. I was just clearing my head. It’s fucking stressful out there!’

But if the manager finds you standing outside by the dumpsters, staring into the night, burning a cigarette, he’ll say instead, ‘Hey buddy. Let’s go.” Or he might even light up and join you on a quick one.

Likewise, if you’re looking at your phone at a similarly inopportune moment, the manager will give you a withering stare and you might get written up at the end of the shift.

I’m not a smoker, but I’ve never held the smoking break against anyone. Even though smokers have routinely stolen 15-20 minutes of my teamwork productivity every night I work when I do not take smoke breaks. Whatever. That’s the kind of guy I am.

But now there’s an equal opportunity un-employer. The Phone Break. Again, the phone break is almost always less than the time for the cigarette break. It’s just a grab, a look, and maybe, some quick typing. The whole thing is a minute or so, max. Cigarette break takes that long just for the human transport to/from the alley, never mind the actual smoking and bullshitting (there’s always more than one out there enjoying themselves).

I mean, in my 20+ year career, I’ve known few precious souls who insist on the government-mandated breaks. Virtually all waiters just charge through, happily and dutifully, because it’s too busy to actually take 10 minutes or 30 minutes (‘lunch break’) from the imperative business at hand. So, now that there is actually something comparable for non-smokers, to the cigarette break, we are expected to cower, apologize, and perhaps suffer disciplinary action? I say no.

Phone breaks should be accepted as a part of the job by management.

Or else no smoke breaks. And how do you think that will go over?

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