DRI-280 for week of 11-11-12: Restaurant-Dish Takeaway and Comparative Economic Systems

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

 Restaurant-Dish Takeaway and Comparative Economic Systems

You are eating dinner in a casual restaurant with a spouse. No sooner does the last forkful of food ascend toward your mouth than your waiter whisks away the plate. His request for permission – “Done with that?” – is purely a formality since the plate is gone before you can object.

You have observed a tendency in recent years for restaurant servers to remove dishes with increasing alacrity. You remark this to your dinner companion who, unlike you, is a non-economist. Her all-purpose explanation of human behavior is binary: Is the object of study a nice guy or not? Nice guys remove dishes quickly so diners have more elbow room to relax.

You are an economist. You believe people act purposefully to achieve their ends. Moreover, you are thoroughly acquainted with tradeoffs. You have often had waiters take your plate before you were through with it. Some people bristle when they perceive others constantly hovering over them. There are even those – not you, of course, but boors and gluttons – who eat the food of others after finishing their own. One of these types might just react by snatching back his plate and declaring, a la John Paul Jones, “I have not yet begun to eat!”

The “nice-guy” explanation won’t suffice, since the quick-takeaway approach will suit many people well but others poorly. Restaurants that follow a consistent policy of quick takeaway risk offending some customers. Offending customers is not something restaurants do lightly. In order to make this risk worthwhile, there should be some strong motivation in the form of a compensating prospect of gain. What might that be?

One way to define an economist is by saying that they are the kind of people who ask themselves questions like this. And the mark of a good economist is that he can supply not only answers but also further implications and ramifications for social life and government policy.

The Economics of Restaurant Service

Americans have eaten in restaurants ever since America became the United States and before that. While the basic concepts underlying the restaurant sector have remained intact, structural changes have remade the industry in recent decades. The most important contributor has been the institution of franchising.

Fast-service franchising began was begun in the 1920s by A&W root-beer stands and Howard Johnson motel-restaurants. Baskin Robbins, Dairy Queen and Tastee Freeze hopped on the bandwagon in the 1930s and 40s. McDonald’s and Subway became big business in the 1950s. The decade of the 1960s saw restaurant franchises zoom to over 100,000 in number. After overcoming legal challenges posed by antitrust and the economic threat of OPEC in the 70s, franchising became the dominant form of restaurant business organization in the 1980s.

Franchising enlarged markets and made competitive entry easier. By standardizing both product and service, it made restaurant operation easier. It raised the stakes involved in success and failure. All these increased the intensity of competition. In turn, this shone the spotlight on even the minutest aspects of restaurant operation. Franchises and food groups ran schools in which they taught their franchisees and managers the fundamentals of restaurant success. Managers went out on their own to put those principles into practice. The level of professional operation ratcheted upward throughout the industry.

The word “professional” means numerous things, but in context it refers to the rigorous, even relentless application of restaurant practices single-mindedly aimed at achieving profitable operation. This entails developing a repeat-customer base and making the largest profit possible from serving that base.

Whether the quality of all types of restaurant food improved is open to debate, but it cannot be doubted that average quality rose. Today, the “greasy spoons” of yesteryear are nearly as scarce as passenger pigeons.

It was during this period of franchise domination that the practice of quick takeaway gained widespread currency. Maximizing the daily turnover of the given restaurant capacity is a commandment in the operations bible for profit-maximization. Minimizing the time between the departure of one set of guests and the arrival of their successors at each table is one way to maximize turnover. One way to reduce the time taken by clearing tables at meal’s completion is to begin the process before departure rather than waiting until the guests get up to leave; that way, fewer dishes remain to remove upon actual departure.

Fast removal of dishes not only maximizes turnover, it also maximizes the revenue take from each separate turnover. From the restaurant owner’s perspective, maximizing the size of each table’s check is another step toward maximizing total profit. After-dinner items like coffee and dessert are the obvious route to that goal. (Alcoholic drinks are the before-dinner complement of this strategy, which is why attainment of a liquor license is a coveted goal for most restaurants.) Quick takeaway aids this strategy in two ways. First, it speeds the transition from dinner to dessert. Second, it aids the server, who is in no position to handle dish removal when arriving at the table laden with desserts.

“Quick takeaway” has been standard practice throughout most of the industry for quite awhile, though. This doesn’t account for a recent speedup. For that, look deeper into the details of restaurant operation.

Table Size, Takeaway and… Demographic Trends?

Concomitant with the trend toward faster takeaway, the economist has also observed a trend toward smaller tables and booths in casual restaurants. Tables, chairs and booths come in standard sizes (there are five different booth sizes, for example), but the observed trend has been toward more booths designed to accommodate two people. Greater usage has been made of bar areas to provide food service, wherein diners can often obtain quicker service at the cost of table space and chairs limited to two people.

To understand the rationale for this changeover, pretend for a moment that all of the restaurant’s patronage consists of parties of two. Larger tables and booths would waste space and unnecessarily limit revenue per turnover, whereas designing for two would maximize the number of people served (and revenue collected) from an individual full-house turnover.

The link between table size and quick takeaway is obvious. Smaller table and booth sizes leave less room to accommodate elbows, books, newspapers, miscellaneous articles – not to mention additional dishes like dessert. (Technically, a smaller table doesn’t mean less room per person, but the whole idea behind the move to smaller tables is to achieve better utilization of capacity – the result leaves much less unused space available than did the larger tables and booths.) Now servers have even more reason to get those vacated dishes moving back to the kitchen, since there was barely room for them on the table to begin with. This reinforces the preexisting motivation for fast table-clearing and enlists the diners’ sympathy on the side of management, since table-crowding has become all too obvious.

There is still one major link left out of the chain of reasoning. In practice, restaurant parties do not consist entirely of twosomes. Casual restaurants usually include a few larger tables and/or booths, but what is to prevent larger parties from dominating smaller ones in the great scheme of things?

The last four decades have seen an increasing demographic trend toward smaller U.S. household size. In 1970, there an average of 3.1 people comprising the average U.S. household. By 2000, this had fallen to 2.62; by 2007, to 2.6 and by 2010, to 2.59.

Several forces drove this trend. First has been a shrinking birthrate. Here the U.S. is merely following the lead of other Western industrialized nations, which have seen shrinking birthrates throughout the 20th century. In the U.S., the shrinkage has waxed and waned since the 1930s. The 1990s saw a modest resurgence and U.S. births barely struggled above 2.0 per 1,000 early in the millennium. That is the replacement point – the level at which births and deaths counterbalance. As noted by leading demographer Ben Wattenberg and others, the large influx of Hispanic immigrants in recent decades undoubtedly spearheaded this comeback. Hispanics tend to be Catholic, fecund and pro-life. But since 2007, the rate has backslid down to 1.9; even the Hispanics seem to have assimilated the American cultural indifference to reproduction.

Other cultural forces have reinforced demography. Birth control has become omnipresent and routine. Divorce and illegitimacy have lost their stigma, thereby conducing to households containing only one parent. Whereas formerly it was commonplace for two men or two women to room together and share expenses, the legal status granted to homosexual partnerships has now placed a question mark around those arrangements. (This applies particularly to males; apparently the politically correct status conferred upon homosexuals does not much reassure two heterosexual men who contemplate cohabitation.) Indeed, it is today less socially questionable for unmarried male/female couples to live together than for same-sex couples – but this is practical only as a substitute for marriage, so its effect on household size is negligible.

The aggregate effect of this cultural attrition has been nearly as potent at the declining birthrate. In 1970, the fraction of households containing one person living alone was 17%. By 2007, this had risen to 27%.

Given this trend toward declining household size, we would expect to see a corresponding decline in the average size of parties at casual restaurants. After all, households (particularly adults) typically dine together rather than separately. Certainly, large groups do assemble on special occasions and regular get-togethers. But the overall trend should follow this declining pattern.

And there you have it. Smaller average household size produces smaller restaurant table and booth size, which in turn produces quick – or rather, quicker – takeaway of dishes at or before meal completion.

Many people instinctively reject this kind of analysis because they can’t picture most restaurant owner and employees thinking this deeply about such minute details or putting their plans into practice. But the foregoing analysis doesn’t necessarily assume that all restaurant owners and managers are this single-minded and obsessive. In a hotly competitive environment, the restaurants that survive and thrive will be those that do take this attitude. They will attract more business – thus, the odds of encountering smaller tables and quick takeaway will be greater even though those practices may not be uniform across the industry. Indeed, this reasoning supports the very notion of profit maximization itself. This survivorship principle was pioneered by the great economist Armen Alchian.

The Larger Meaning of Little Details

Economics is capable of supplying answers to life’s quaint little questions. (Some people would rearrange the wording of that sentence to “quaint little answers to life’s questions.”) But economics was developed to tackles bigger issues. It turns out that the little questions bear on the big ones.

One of the big questions economists ask about the behavior of business firms is: Is it socially beneficial? Business firms exist because, and to the extent that, they produce goods and services cheaper and better than individual households can. The gauge of success is the welfare of consumers.

Smaller tables and quick takeaway enable restaurants to achieve better capacity utilization. This enables them to cut costs and serve more customers. These are beneficial to consumers. The more intense competition serves to lower prices of restaurant food. This also benefits consumers.

What about the quality of food served? Table size and dish removal do not bear directly on this question, but the industry shift towards corporate control and franchised ownership has sometimes been blamed for a supposed decline in overall food quality. This hypothesis overlooks the analytical nose on its face – the fact that consumers themselves are the only possible judges of quality. Even if we assume that average quality has fallen, we have no basis for second-guessing the willingness of consumers to trade off lower quality for lower price and greater quantity. This is the same sort of tradeoff we make in every other sphere of consumption – housing, clothing, entertainment, medical care, ad infinitum.

The Left wing has recently developed a variation on its theme of corporate malignity in production and distribution of food. Corporations are destroying the health of their customers by purveying food containing too much sugar, salt, fat and taste. Only stringent government regulation of restaurant operations can hope to counteract the otherwise-irresistible lure of corporate advertising and junk food.

This hypothesis is not merely wrongheaded but wrong on the facts. Consumers have every right to trade off lower longevity for heightened enjoyment of life. This is something people often do in non-nutritive contexts such as athletics, extreme leisure pursuits like hang-gliding or public-service activities like missionary work. History indicates that, far from promoting public health, government has aided and abetted the increased incidence of type-II diabetes through wrong-headed dietary insistence on carbohydrate consumption as the foundational building block of nutrition.

Any objective appraisal must recognize that nowhere on earth can consumers find such abundance and diversity of cuisine as in the United States of America. World cuisine is amply represented even in mid-size metropolitan markets like Kansas City, Missouri and Sioux City, Iowa. There is no taste left unfulfilled – even the esoteric insistence on vegetarian meals, organic cultivation and free-range animal raising.

Restaurant Regulation

In order to appreciate the operation of a free market for restaurant meals, we need to dial down our level of abstraction and conduct a comparative-systems comparison. Heretofore we have conducted an imaginative exercise: we have explained a piece of restaurant operations under free-market competition. Now we need to envision how that piece would work under an alternative system like socialism.

In a socialist system, public ownership of the means of production dictates thoroughgoing, top-down regulation of business practice. For example, a regulator will pose the questions: How many booths and tables should the restaurant have? How big should they be? How far apart should they be spaced? How many people should we allow the restaurant to serve and how many should be allowed to sit at each table and booth?

In a socialist system, a regulator or group of them will ask this question in a centralized fashion. That is, he will ask it for a large grouping of restaurants – perhaps all restaurants, perhaps all fast-service restaurants, all bar-restaurants, all casual sit-down restaurants and all fine-dining restaurants. Or perhaps regulators will choose to group the restaurant industry differently. But group it they will and regulate each group on a one-size-rule-fits-all basis.

How will the regulator decide what regulations to impose? He will have government statistics at his disposal, such as the information cited above on average household size. It will be up to him to decide which information is relevant and how to apply the aggregate or collective information that governments collect to each individual restaurant being regulated. Even in the wildly unlikely instance that a regulator could actually visit each regulated restaurant, that could hardly happen more than once per year.

As we have just seen, free markets don’t work that way. One of the most misleading of popular perceptions is that free markets are “unregulated.” In reality, they are subject to the most stringent regulation of all – that of competition. But because the regulation part of competition works invisibly, people seem to miss its importance completely.

Instead of waiting for a central authority to certify its product as tasty and wholesome, markets supply their own verdict. Consumers try it for themselves. They ask their friends or take note when opinions are volunteered. They seek out reviews in newspapers, online and on television. When the verdict is unfavorable, bad news travels fast. This applies even more strongly to the aspect of health, by the way. Nothing empties a restaurant quicker than food-borne illness or even the rumor of it – as entrepreneurs know only too well.

In contrast, government health regulation doesn’t move nearly this fast. The cumbersome process of visits by the health inspector, trial-by-checklist followed by re-inspection – a pattern broken only rarely by a shutdown – is a classic example of bureaucracy at work. Political favoritism can affect the choice of inspections and the result. The de facto health inspector is the free market, not the government employee who holds that title.

Competitive regulation is decentralized. In our restaurant example, decisions about table size and restaurant takeaway are not made by a far-off government authority and applied uniformly. They are made on the spot, at each restaurant on a day-by-day basis. Restaurant owners and managers may possibly have the same government-collected information available to regulators, although it seems likely that they will be too busy to spend much time evaluating it. More to the point, though, they will have what the late Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek called “the information of particular time and place.” That is the time- and place-specific information about each particular restaurant that only its owner and managers can mobilize.

Merely because average household size has fallen over the U.S. does not mean that households in each and every individual neighborhood are smaller. It may be the case, for example, that in Hispanic neighborhoods – not gripped by declining birthrates or an epidemic of divorce – average household size has not fallen as it mostly has elsewhere. Those restaurants would not feel the urge to decrease table size and speed up dish collections in line with most restaurants. And well they shouldn’t, since they would serve their particular customers better by not blindly playing follow-the-leader with national trends.

Would centralized regulators pick up on this distinction? No, they would have to be clairvoyant in order to sort out the kind of exceptions that markets automatically catch.

After all, their aggregate statistics simply do not sift the data finely enough to make individual distinctions and differences visible.

But decentralized markets make those individual differences keenly felt by the people most affected. For restaurants, variations in consumer preference are felt by the very people who serve the consumer groups. Changes in demographic trends are witnessed by those whose very livelihoods are at stake. Competitive regulation works because it is on the spot, informed by the exact information needed and directed by the very people – on both sides of the market – with the motivation and expertise needed to make it effective.

Free markets allow participants to collect, disperse and heed information from any source but do not force people to respond to it. They do, however, provide incentives to respond proportionately to the magnitude of the information provided. A huge disruption of the supply of something will produce a big increase in price, suggesting to people that they reduce their consumption of this good a lot. A small decrease in a good’s price will offer a gentle inducement to increase consumption of something but not to go hog wild over it.

Again and again, we find ourselves saying that free markets nudge people in the right direction, towards doing the thing that we would want done if we could somehow magically observe all economic activity and direct by waving a magic wand. Economists laconically define this quality as being “efficient.”

Restaurant Economics and Rational Behavior

This object lesson in restaurant economics reminds us of a perceptive argument for free markets put forward by Hayek. He was responding to longtime arguments put forth by critics on the Left. The same arguments have recently reechoed following the housing bubble, financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession. Free markets may be logical, the critics concede, but only if people are rational. Since people behave irrationally, free markets must fail in practice, however well grounded their principles might be.

Hayek observed that the critics had it backwards. Markets do not require rational behavior by participants in order to function. Instead, markets encourage rational behavior by rewarding those who act rationally and penalizing those who do not. The history of mankind reveals a gradual movement towards more rational behavior; the widely noted reduction in the incidence of warfare is one noteworthy example of this.

The Audience Responds With a Burst of Applause

Can you imagine a nobler progression from the trivially mundane to the globally significant? That is what economists do.

And, by way of gratitude for this insight, your dinner companion rewards you by inquiring: “OK, now explain why restaurants are so stingy with the butter these days.”

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