At some point in my adult life, many people in the restaurant industry were seized by the idea that wait staff should not write down customers’ orders. I wonder where this practice came from and what its economic payoff is presumed to be.

Two companions and I had brunch this weekend in an eatery of the “don’t write things down” school. When you count in beverages and side orders, that meant that the waitress was trying to remember about 9 pieces of information, which is at the limit of most people’s working memory (Psychologist George Miller famously showed that most people have cognitive space for seven items, plus or minus two). Unsurprisingly, she brought me the wrong main dish and got both of my companions’ side orders wrong.

Why does this practice persist, when it is economically disadvantageous for the restaurant? In this case for example, food was wasted and at least one of my dining companions was sufficiently irritated to reduce his tip.

Many industry practices happen out of sight of the customer. But industries make certain practices public if they believe it will increase customers’ willingness to pay. As the “we don’t write things down” parlour trick is done ostentatiously, it must be believed that customers value it and will pay for it. I wonder if there is any basis to this belief.

The health care industry has dramatically increased patient safety by writing down important things more often and double-checking information to avoid errors (e.g., does the patient’s wrist band match the name in the chart? Does the medication label match the prescription? Does the written surgical order match the planned procedure?). It is hard to imagine a hospital today marketing itself by emphasizing to patients that “We aren’t one of those fuddy-duddy medical centers that writes important information down!”. Yet at least some people in the restaurant industry seem to think that relying only on memory is a selling point.

One could argue that it’s different with hospitals because a memory error therein can lead to health damage. But that only makes sense if you ignore that fact that people have food allergies. I can’t imagine the anxiety of a restaurant customer who says “Take out the coriander because I become violently ill if I eat it” and then observes that the waiter doesn’t write this important information down.

Of course, industries sometimes adopt ineffective practices based on faith and anecdote. Maybe a management guru in the food industry ran some seminars for CEOs and said that when wait staff maintain eye contact during the order-taking process, customer satisfaction increases, or, that when a waiter remembers an order correctly without writing it down, customers are so thrilled that they tip more.

To me it’s just sloppy practice and raises the risk that the wait staff will fail at one of their essential duties: Bringing customers the food they actually ordered. The proposition that restaurant customers are less inclined to reward receiving the right food than they are a vaudeville-style memory trick seems extremely dubious.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.