You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant

As most of you have probably already gathered from my facebook stati, I recently accepted an offer from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where I plan to begin studying History and Russian this coming September. As a result, I have had to cut back on some of my regular expenditures, which I hadn’t been paying much attention to, but which add up to quite a bit when you aren’t looking. Mostly, I refer to eating out. It is one thing to drop by a cafe once in a while, but it is amazing how expensive it can be when you are going multiple times in a week. Since realizing this, I happily managed to chop my spending in half by 1) going out less frequently, and 2) dropping my coffee a size and ordering the cheapest item off the menu. This was a nice compromise for me, as I very much did not want to have to stop going out all together.
For me, going out for food is only half about the food. The really addicting part is the idea of being a Regular. I enjoy getting brunch with my brothers, and in-laws, and inlaws-inlaw every Sunday because I enjoy their company. But a not insignificant part of me does a happy little jump when we walk into Coney Island and every waitress there knows who we are. Similarly, it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside when I walk into my favorite cafe Wednesday afternoon. I go there for a nice place to relax for the two hour interim between getting off work and my Taekwondo class. Why lose half an hour in time and gas money driving home when the cafe is five minute from my dojo and on my way home from work? And what a small pleasure it is to walk into my cafe, and have everyone there greet me by name, ring me up without needing to ask what I want, and ask me how my drawing is going. Some days, when they’re closing, they even offer me free coffee.
I swear to god, it makes me feel like goddamn royalty. /Holden Caulfield
But the warm, fuzzy feeling you get from being a Regular goes a little further than that. First of all, the comfort derived from that sort of relationship is knowing that it will always be a friendly one,* in so much as it is also a shallow one. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort, only a few dollars every now and then, and in return, I get a friendly greeting any time I walk in the door. Also, because neither you nor the people at the your restaurant of choice know you very well, you get to generally think well of them knowing that they generally think well of you. You take on the role of a pleasant side character: sure, no one notices you much, but no one’s going to criticize you either. No one’s going to judge you or find any real reason not to like you. Of course, it works the other way, too. No one’s going to think great things of you, but that’s OK. That’s part of the charm. It’s a chance to step aside and let someone else be the protagonist.

What I think is really funny, though, is how little time it really takes to be a Regular. In my experience, it goes something like this:

On your first visit, you are nobody.
On your second visit, they may remember your face, but they probably won’t chance being wrong.
By your third visit, provided it is within a reasonable span of time (third time in that month, for instance,) they suddenly smile at you, address you by name, or else show some sign of recognition and good will.

Of course, even this varies. Sometimes your first visit was memorable enough that you’re a recognizable face by your second visit. I experimented with this once at a Big Boy I used to frequent in high school. I’d go there on Friday nights with a couple of friends, and we’d hang out and drink coffee for a few hours. We used to leave little doodles on the backs of our paper place mats, and leave them for the waitress. The result was pretty consistent: leave a doodle for a waitress, and when she sees you next week she’ll know who you are.

Results also vary based on the frequency of your visits. For a few weeks, I was addicted to the local Falafel restaurant. I’d drop in every week or two to try out a different item off their menu. But, even though the workers at the restaurant are always the same, because I drop in on varying days, and because I never come within a week’s time (and usually longer,) it’s taken them longer to remember me. Judging from my punch card, I’ve dropped in for a meal nine times over the past three months. Today, the guy who takes my order made a valiant guess at my name, and somehow came up with my mom’s name instead. They both begin with the same letter, so it wasn’t too far off, but still not quite there. However, this does not prevent me from claiming my status as a Regular at their restaurant. Why? Because after my third visit none of the three or four workers at the Falafel place had to ask me if I wanted my falafel in a pita anymore, and after my forth or fifth they started asking me about my reading. (This was particularly gratifying the first time, because when I went back to pick up my pita sandwich, one of the older guys I’d never talked to asked me what book I was reading “this time.” The last time I was in, a different Falafel guy, under the impression that I had brought no reading material at all, asked me what I had done with my book. As it turned out, I had shoved it into my coat pocket, where it was hidden safely out of sight.)

In short, I enjoy my experiences as a Regular. Before I went to Germany, I had a regular Big Boy waitress. When I came back, I struck up a happy connection with the barristas at my school cafe. The waitresses at the Coney Island asked to see my brother’s wedding pictures, and the coffee people at Moonwink’s were excited to hear I’d gotten into the college I wanted. And there is something quiet and reassuring about the Falafel people knowing that I like pita bread, and that I read a lot. It might not seem like much, but it is the crucial bridge connecting me to all the other people I’ll never meet. There is a small safe feeling that comes from knowing that, to the outside world, you are not entirely anonymous.

*Rather, P=.95 that it will remain friendly as there are strong incentives for the restaurant owners to provide good customer service. (That was for you, John.)

2 thoughts on “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant

  1. There is something very comforting about not always being anonymous wherever you go, and although the staff in the restaurants aren't going to get too deep into your life, they have a place that is assuring and consoling. When they know what you want, there is a sense of belonging. We don't want to be perceived as being in a rut, but we do like being known enough to have memorable likes, interests, traits and foibles. We recognize that we have endeared ourselves to them, and that ain't a bad thing!


  2. I swear to god, it makes me feel like goddamn royalty. /Holden Caulfield


    I was gonna say, even before you made explicit reference to me at the end, that this post is actually a pretty great ode to capitalism on many levels:

    1. Notice how you are able to rapidly change your behavior based on preferences and information known only to you.

    2. Notice how the market provides you with the ability to express your preference for “Regular” status without any sort of central directive. It allows you to place a value on it and forces you to bear the costs associated with it. Furthermore, at the same time it allows me to actively avoid “Regular” status, if I wish.

    P=.95 that it will remain friendly as there are strong incentives for the restaurant owners to provide good customer service

    I would write this:

    P(Restaurant service remains friendly|Strong incentives for the restaurant owners to provide good customer service) = 0.95

    This reads:

    The probability that “restaurant service remains friendly” given “strong incentives for the restaurant owners to provide good service” equals 0.95.

    The important point is that P is usually written as a function of the proposition in question.


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