Squatters’ wrong: Wait in line with rest of us

Claiming table before ordering messes with the math

Friday, January 23, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 4

Owners of meat-and-three institution Arnold’s figured out the problem of diners occupying tables before getting their food long ago. Regulars are depended on to keep the uninitiated in line – literally, in line.

-- Lyle Graves | The Ledger

It’s 7 p.m. on Friday night at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken in Midtown, and the line to order curls out the front door and stretches down the sidewalk.

Students traveling in packs, mixed with tourists and locals, are anxious to dig into the Nashville-style dish.

But at one table in the cramped restaurant, a patron sits alone at a four-top. She has no food, no drink and no order number waiting to be called. While a group of women hovered over her looking for a spot of their own, she stares into her iPhone.

When the group eventually gives up and walks away toward the patio, the woman sneaks a glance. She knows they were watching her.

The woman with the phone is what Weston Hunter calls a squatter. She’s holding a table before her order is placed.

And in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that squatters make me crazy.

I’ve seen it happen all over town at places like Edley’s Barbecue and Taqueria del Sol when diners rush in, ignore the line and grab a spot to sit before waiting their turn.

At some restaurants, they’ll be called out for it. But with Nashville growing and some of the best restaurants having an order-at-the-counter set-up – think Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, Peg Leg Porker, Arnold’s Country Kitchen, Mas Tacos Por Favor and the new Biscuit Love Brunch – I figure we at least need to know the reason behind the rules.

So to Hattie B’s, I invited Hunter, a math expert, to help me solve the case. I wanted to collect data. I wanted to mathematically – or somehow scientifically – prove that squatting disrupts dining patterns and pretty much puts a kink in the universe.

As we waited for our food, Hunter talked about useable resources (i.e., tables) and identifying the bottleneck. Hattie B’s has two bottlenecks – the waiting on a table and the waiting on food. But as long as there’s a table when the food arrives, it works out.

“If you have a number, you’re not really squatting,” one diner at our table explained.

But if you stay too long after eating? Squatter.

With one register, Hattie B’s is known as a one-queue system. Adding additional queues might not make a difference, though, if the kitchen can’t keep up with the demand of more than one queue.

Indeed, there’s a study of lines called queuing theory. Experts in this area might study lines at a grocery, for example. Fewer lanes open saves the grocer in staffing costs, but he still wants to optimize the “through point” by predicting demand based on consumer patterns.

Kahlil Arnold at Arnold’s Country Kitchen has a lunch line out the front door every day, but somehow the flow always works. When people pay for their tray of food, they’ll find a table. His analysis is less scientific.

“If they have babies or are elderly and need to sit down, then I sit them,” he says. “But if they are physically able, I ask them to please stand in line, and I promise I’ll have them a table when they get their food. I tell them if everybody got a table without their food, then there would be no tables.

“And honestly, the local people here kind of understand it’s an unwritten rule of Arnold’s. Once you finish eating, get up and let the next person have it. We’re very lucky to have great people here. So the out-of-towners kind of learn by example.”

One of the newest and most anticipated spots in town, Biscuit Love Brunch, plans to open this weekend in The Gulch with a fast-casual setup.

Co-owner Sarah Worley, who started the business as a food truck with her husband Karl, says part of their decision to have diners order at the counter comes from the 15 percent lower break-even point it helps deliver. Like Arnold, she also has faith in self-regulation among customers.

At Hattie B’s, Hunter’s friend, also a math expert, showed up later to dinner.

He waited in line until he had his number, but he already had a space to sit by joining us.

When we asked him to weigh-in on the squatting situation, he had a different perspective: If everyone squatted, the system also would work out just fine.

Maybe I’m the one being too uptight about things, I wondered.

It also was becoming clear that the math problem wouldn’t be solved in a single dinner, and that we’d have to lean too much on the more elusive variable of human decency.

We finished the last of our food just moments before a server appeared to scoop up our trays and chicken bones.

“Can I get these out of the way for you?” she asked.

And like good patrons, we took the hint.

*In the food business, being “in the weeds” means being super busy. And that’s also how we would describe Nashville’s booming restaurant scene. In this column, Jennifer Justus, journalist, author and food culture writer, keeps us up to date on food, dining out and trends with bi-weekly reports from the table.