A deeper look into the DIY dining experience

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The general do it yourself (DIY) movement is not a new idea. Several years ago, archaeologists discovered a Greek-style temple in Potenza, Italy that dated back to the 6th century B.C., which included instructions for roof assembly. The “Ikea-style” temple, as it was thereafter referred to, informs us that these ancient Romans, as architecturally talented as they were, left behind guidance for their peers to do-it-themselves.

What I find the most interesting, however, is the DIY movement in the culinary context. Though it used to be only hole-in-the-wall dining establishments that would require diners to fetch their own silverware, napkins, water, etc., the trend has permeated each and every corner of Los Angeles, revolutionizing, or perhaps stunting, the restaurant industry.

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Poach di Parma: poached eggs, prosciutto di Parma and arugula at Urth Café

At first it seems that the DIY restaurant movement is perhaps more productive for dining establishments. Restaurant workers do not have to spend time setting tables, refilling water glasses, cleaning up after messy eaters, or ensuring the happiness of the customer. Diners can come and go as they please without ever having to interact with a maître d or hostess. However, considering the volume Angelinos that flock to trendy brunch establishments, this DIY model may be less effective in practice.

I came to notice this problem when my relatives visited from the East Coast. They were deeply confused and somewhat dismayed at the prospect of having to do everything but actually prepare the food for themselves when dining out. This led me to question—is DIY actually more efficient than a restaurant with waiters? The answer would have to include a somewhat in-depth analysis of DIY dining establishments versus conventional restaurants, and in addition, factoring in the financial benefits of hiring waiters versus not.

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Oregano feta quiche at Sqirl in Silver Lake
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Seared lamb sandwich with fresh mozzarella at Sqirl in Silver Lake

However, there are several problems with DIY dining that have become apparent in my experience as a diner in Los Angeles.

  • Confusion of customers. When one ventures into a DIY dining establishment, what are they supposed to do? Sit down or order food? Take a number or wait to be called upon to order? Wait to pick up your food once you’ve ordered or sit down and wait for it to come? These issues frequently lead to high volumes of people standing in each others’ way, holding up lines and generally frustrating the employees, or being frustrated by the employees.
  • Overworking of staff. Though customers are expected to do everything themselves, they likely will not, and therefore employees of the restaurant must come to their aid. However, when there are only two or three employees of the restaurant, ensuring the customer’s contentment becomes a much more difficult task. In a recent dining experience, two waiters were frantically running around a crowded restaurant looking for the small numbered signs on tables that indicated which customer ordered what meal. The time spent frantically running around with large trays of food could be drastically decreased if each table had a waiter.
  • Lack of jobs and wage supplementation. As any waiter knows, tips are vital to one’s salary. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) mandates that employers of tipped employees are only required to pay $2.13/hr in wages. This is far below the federal minimum wage, and not even enough to buy a small cup of coffee. At most DIY dining establishments, customers are given the option to tip, however there is no guarantee that the tip will go to an employee that helped the customer, and due to the lack of assistance provided to the customer by the inherent nature of DIY dining establishments, many customers refrain from tipping at all. The DIY model also eliminates job opportunities for waiters.
  • Decrease in contentment of customers and alienation of the worker from the customer. If the employee’s only task is to take a customer’s order, and not ensure that the customer has a positive dining experience, the customer will likely have a less positive experience and therefore enjoy their food less (and be less likely to come back). In addition, diners can easily become overindulgent and expect too much from the 2-3 employees working at a restaurant, causing a rift between diners and employees. Which, as Marx so famously pointed out – is the root of all evil.

Though there are numerous problems with these Angelino DIY dining establishments, the quality of the food somehow remains superb. It would be better, however, if the customer service came with the culinary delight. Dove c’è il buon cibo c’è amore.