• Pre-Theater Dinner Auctions

    This post originally appeared on The Finance Buff and has been included in the Economy and Your Finances Carnival on OneMint.com.

    Recently, my wife, friends, and I went into The Big City on a beautiful spring evening to see Leonard Cohen in concert. It was a superb show and a splendid night. The concert began at 8PM, as did many other theatrical and musical events in the area. Like many others, we were in the market for pre-theater dinner.

    We arrived downtown around 6:30PM and found the restaurants packed with lines out the doors. We put our name on the list at a Malaysian establishment and were told it’d be a twenty minute wait. We killed the time with a stroll and then returned to wait for our table. By 7PM we were still waiting and I began to get concerned. I don’t like to rush through dinner but it seemed like we’d have little choice.

    To take my mind off my concern, I began to observe the parties that were seated but seemed to be finishing, or had finished, their meals. They all seemed needlessly slow and casual. Some checked their watches. A few double checked that they had their theater or concert tickets. I saw an economics problem.

    Those who were nearly done eating had an hour to kill before their shows. Their objective was to kill the time, which they could do by stretching out their dining experience. Those of us who were waiting to eat had the opposite problem: we would have to use that hour efficiently to eat and get to the theater on time.

    The economist in me thought, “If only I could walk up to one of these slow-pokes and offer them some money to give up their table we could all be made better off.” Perhaps someone done with his meal would gladly accept $10 to move on. I probably would have been happy to spend that much to get the table more quickly. But there is no such market, not because it is illegal, but because nearly everyone would consider it gauche. We just don’t do that sort of thing, at least not in America, or not in The Big City anyway.

    With more time to kill I contemplated the implications of such a market. A table auction might break out. The proprietors might participate to increase turnover. The incentive for early diners would be to linger longer in order to take advantage of the premium on tables that would occur about one hour before show time. How unpleasant and stressful I would find such a market!

    Thus, I convinced myself that a market for tables based on financial transaction would not be helpful. The current market, driven by social norms and etiquette works quite well and, perhaps, could not be improved upon. As I completed my thought experiment about pre-theater diner table auctions the host led us to our seats. It was a good, albeit quick, meal and the price for the seat was just right.

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    • @TIE – That’s a great observation. For events that have limited capacity, such market does exist. Witness long lines for “Black Friday” shopping events. There are “queuing professionals” who take a position in the front of the line for the purpose of selling that position for a price.

    • I love this post! It sparked my imagination of the riot that would be the auction.

      Best to go even earlier next time…

    • How about matinee meals lol… Like how there’s dinner, bfast, lunch, a cheaper/diff menu for matinee dinner. Or supper (I always get them confused -_-)

      It seems to me it’s really just social norms as to why that’s not done. Of course, you could try social norms to pressure them to leave earlier =) I like the… stare longingly lol.

      I believe some buffets in Asia implement similar systems; you pay for 1 hr and eaaaat.

      Does it boil down to… what are you paying for? The food? “Renting” the table? the entire dining exp?

    • I think an important point is that the proprietor does seem to have a strong incentive to limit lingering. Lingering early diners may turn away some late diners, or cause them to have an inferior experience (rushed dinner).

      Therefore, the proprietor should give a discount to diners who do not linger. E.g., anyone who starts dinner after 5:30pm and clears the table by, say, 6:50pm, gets a small discount on their meal.

      Why doesn’t the restaurant owner do this? One theory is that, perhaps, patrons would look down on a posh theatre district restaurant that started giving discounts.

    • @simplesimon – Oh were it so easy to go earlier! Life with small children has its constraints. 🙂

      @AM – Since proprietor’s do not do as you suggest it is reasonable to conclude that it isn’t in their interests to do so. Maybe the combination of (a) it isn’t hospitable and (b) there is a trade off between rushing someone out and squeezing them for more (dessert, coffee, …).

      I still think the effect of social norms is sufficient and, in all likelihood, preferable. Is it just a different kind of market where transactions are paid in good will and the self-satisfaction that comes with “doing the right thing”? Sure, why not?

    • There already is a regulator to this market, the server. “Turn ’em and burn ’em” was a popular phrase one of my coworkers like to use. The more tables you turn, the more you make in a shift.

      As a former server in my younger days at a trendy restaurant, I can tell you lingering is a great annoyance, especially if they are not ordering a dessert or more drinks.

      When this occurred, passive-aggressive methods are employed to get you to move on. The first is to pick up the signed credit card receipt from the table. Next, finish busing the table of anything not in someone’s hand. Then restock or clean up salt/pepper, the sugar caddy, condiments, etc. Finally, you stop refilling water or other refillable drinks. After a sufficient time some coworkers would ask people to leave, but I was never so bold/rude.