Want a successful restaurant? Have people stand in line

There’s this breakfast place near my house that always has a line. And I’m not talking a short, stubby line, either. I’m talking a full, building-length line.

This isn’t a comfortable line, either. It’s unprotected from the sun’s rays. Within 15 minutes, you’re sweating. Within 30, you’re sunburnt.

The place is definitely “cute” inside. It has that “grandma’s place” vibe, and the baked stuff there is quite delicious (if you ever go, I recommend the coffee cake).

But the breakfast food is, to be honest, nothing special. It’s standard diner-fare, complete with the standard post-diner heartburn.

So why do people from around the world wait an hour to experience this unremarkable restaurant?

Two words: Social. Proof.

Every single time I pass the place with a friend, they ask: “Ooh. Is that place good?” or “Whoa, we’ve gotta check out that place sometime.”

Even when I tell them about the unmelted cheese I had in my last omelette there, they stay interested. They vow to check it out.

And then there’s the Yelp-effect. The place has 3,629 reviews and a solid 4-stars.

I actually don’t know if I’ve ever seen a restaurant with more ratings.

It would definitely win Prom Queen in San Francisco's restaurant popularity contest.

It’s amazing how much of our perception we outsource to others. I think that wine is the best example of this. If you have a perverse sense of humor and want to see this in real time, do the following: Next time you’re drinking wine with someone, start going off about all of the non-existent things you can taste in the glass you’re sipping.

“My god—do you taste that tart apple? What about that Greek peppercorn?”

You’ll be amazed by how you can shape their experience with these little prods.

I know. I know. That’s kind of messed up. But if you get called out you can blame it on me.

Anyways, this long-lined restaurant got me thinking… if I was going to start a restaurant, I would have all of my friends come and form a line outside for the first week or two. I’d get that perceived social-proof rolling. For all I know, that’s what all of these now-famous restaurants did back in the day. Maybe they hired people to come and fill up the seats and loiter outside for the first month they were open.

That unfortunate fact, if it was discovered, would be lost to history; but the social proof snowball would have already formed. Fifty years later, it’d be a San Francisco staple with thousands of Yelp reviews.

If you think about it, basing your decisions on what lots of other people think is actually a smart move. What are the chances that 1000 people all had a fluke of a meal? This point of view is well-illustrated by James Surowiecki in his book, Wisdom of the Crowds. It turns out that if you take the average of the predictions/opinions of thousands of people on anything, you’ll be pretty darn accurate—more accurate than even the “experts”.

That’s why Yelp is, actually, a pretty darn reliable way to discover good restaurants, and why well-rated products with more than a couple hundred Amazon reviews are rarely a disappointment.

But this rational decision-making strategy can go wrong at times. Why? Because in the realm of subjective experience, we’re particularly malleable. Our beliefs can shape how things taste, smell, and feel. And if we’re in a social context in which we, and all of our friends, are insistent on ‘having a good time’, it’s not likely that we’ll talk down our experience (at least publicly). And cognitive dissonance is a powerful force. Our public pronouncements shape how we feel and how we remember things.

Until tomorrow,

Jason

PS: I was just on a podcast. Give it a listen a let me know what you think.

Jason Hreha