This may have happened to you: You call a restaurant, and instead of a live person, you get a recorded voice telling you to leave a message and someone will get back to you. Or even worse, you go online looking for a restaurant’s phone number, only to discover there isn’t one.
What’s going on here?
Welcome to the era of the phoneless restaurant. Even as technology has allowed us to connect to anyone whenever we want, a growing number of restaurants are abandoning the dedicated business phone line. In other words, they’re saying, “Don’t call us. And don’t expect us to call you.”
The reason, you probably won’t be surprised to learn, has to do with money.
As local restaurateur David English explains, restaurant labor costs have doubled in the past seven years, a development that contributed to his decision to close his popular upscale restaurant, Midtown’s Press Bistro, in late 2019. “I don’t know any other business that can survive a doubling of labor costs,” he says. “That’s why prices go up. But you can only raise your prices so much.”
Two and a half years later, when he opened Juju Kitchen & Cocktails near the state Capitol, English made several decisions designed to save on labor costs: limited hours of operation, a simplified menu, no host or hostess to greet diners at the door and no house phone.
If a restaurant has a phone, reasons English, someone has to answer it. That’s where money enters the picture. “If I’m paying that person $20 an hour, I’ll have to charge an extra dollar a cocktail,” he notes. “All the costs I take on, I have to pass on to the customer.”
Fine-dining restaurants that take reservations, such as Ella and The Waterboy, are in no immediate danger of jettisoning their phones. “Ninety percent of what a restaurant uses a phone for is making and confirming reservations, calling to ask if a customer is coming, that sort of thing,” says English.
For casual eateries like Juju that don’t offer reservations, a phone doesn’t supply much benefit to the business. Often, callers are seeking general information, like address and hours, that’s readily available on the restaurant’s website. “Answering the phone doesn’t make us any money,” says one local restaurant owner who asked not to be identified. “It generally is just a problem. These days, most of the people who call are telemarketers. It’s people trying to sell us stuff.”
Some restaurants have found a workaround for the dedicated phone line that needs to be answered by a living, breathing person: They have a phone number but no actual phone. Instead, calls are routed to a digital answering system that can be monitored at the owner’s convenience. Known as virtual phones or ghost phones, these systems give the appearance of a house phone without the perky voice saying, “Hello, can I help you?” on the other end of the line. Betty Wine Bar & Bottle Shop, a hip hangout in Southside Park, opened about a year ago with a virtual phone. Customers were none the wiser.
Companies such as Grasshopper, Google Voice and OpenPhone offer low-cost virtual phone systems that are flexible and easy to use. These systems, which can cost as little as $15 a month, operate over the internet and don’t require the installation of physical hardware.
During the pandemic, ordering systems like Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats extended a lifeline to restaurants depending on the huge uptick in takeout orders. One downside, of course, was the hefty commission restaurants had to pay on each order — generally 15 to 30 percent of the tab. In 2020, Grubhub, which owns the Seamless online ordering brand, had to revise its phone ordering system under withering criticism that it was charging restaurants for calls, even when a diner called to ask a question and didn’t place an order.
The vaunted vegetarian restaurant Mother reopened earlier this year in a new location in Midtown with an answering machine instead of a house phone. It was installed in the home of co-owners Michael and Lisa Thiemann, and its ring was silenced. The couple checked it periodically, says Michael Thiemann, but it wasn’t their main line of communication. Instead, Mother encouraged diners to reach out through Instagram or email to place an order or reserve a spot for Mother’s Thursday night “Chef’s 10” tasting menu. Recently, Mother jettisoned the answering machine entirely. Now, under the headline “Phone,” its website proclaims, “We don’t have one.” The site recommends customers place to-go orders either online or in person.
Not everyone loves the phoneless restaurant trend. In particular, older, less tech-savvy diners grumble when they can’t pick up the phone to call an eatery. Thiemann has even heard complaints from a few Gen-Xers.
And then there are the restaurant die-hards hanging on to their house phones, costs be damned. “I understand the trend,” says Diana Dich, whose family owns Happy Takeout, a restaurant serving Chinese food in Oak Park. “I know how long it takes to take a phone order. One minute is a long time when you’re really busy.” Those phone orders are still an important part of her business, which is one big reason she sticks with a house phone. “I know a lot of people are old school. Elderly people, especially, don’t know how to use the new tablet systems and DoorDash.”
The house phone isn’t the only old-school amenity Dich refuses to ditch: “I still take cash.”
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