How long is too long to hang out at a fast food restaurant? Does it matter if we are talking about a McDonald’s instead of a Starbucks? Those questions are part of a spat between a New York McDonald’s outlet and a group of elderly Korean customers (Fighting a McDonald’s in Queens for the Right to Sit. And Sit. And Sit., New York Times, Jan 14).
For the past several months, a number of elderly Korean patrons and this McDonald’s they frequent have been battling over the benches inside. The restaurant says the people who colonize the seats on a daily basis are quashing business, taking up tables for hours while splitting a small packet of French fries ($1.39); the group say they are customers and entitled to take their time. A lot of time.
“Do you think you can drink a large coffee within 20 minutes?” David Choi, 77, said. “No, it’s impossible.”
And though they have treated the corner restaurant as their own personal meeting place for more than five years, they say, the situation has escalated in recent months. The police said there had been four 911 calls since November requesting the removal of the entrenched older patrons. Officers have stopped in as frequently as three times a day while on patrol, according to the patrons, who sidle away only to boomerang right back. Medium cups of coffee ($1.09 each) have been spilled; harsh words have been exchanged. And still — proud, defiant and stuck in their ways — they file in each morning, staging a de facto sit-in amid the McNuggets. …
“It’s a McDonald’s,” said Martha Anderson, the general manager, “not a senior center.” She said she called the police after the group refused to budge and other customers asked for refunds because there was nowhere to sit.
You can also check out this oddly awesome video.
Why does this interest me? Because it gets to the question of what is a service and how service providers assure they are fairly compensated. On the former, a service is not about simply about providing a physical good like a burger or a cup of coffee. It’s also about access to the service provider’s resources — its space and its staff. Not everyone necessarily needs to use those resources to the same degree (e.g., some customers get their food to go) but there becomes a question of how the firm can draw boundaries defining what is allowed. The boundaries are important since how a customer uses a service can impact the service provider’s costs or the experience of other guests. That clearly is relevant in this setting (or when old ladies get their cars towed in my home town). Senior citizens bogarting tables keeps the restaurant from offering convenient service to other customers.
Now the obvious comeback to that is that they have paid to be there. That gets to the point of how a service provider gets compensated because, arguably, the seniors have not paid for the amount of service they are consuming. McDonald’s does not price its offerings to account for customer hanging out in perpetuity. Starbucks, in contrast, does. Coffee is more expensive at Starbucks than McDonald’s and some of that may reflect sourcing higher quality beans or more careful roasting but a lot of it also is a recognition that people come out to Starbucks to socialize and hang out. The price of a Starbucks’ latte then bundles coffee with leather seats (see here) while the price McDonald’s fries does not. When a handful of customers act as if they have also bought a seat for the day, it jams up their operating model.
So how does this get resolved? The twist on the McDonald’s story the cultural angle with the Korean community calling for the restaurant to properly respect the seniors and agitating for a boycott. (In contrast, when old ladies get their cars towed in New Hampshire, most people think they got what was coming to them. Check out the comments on the original article.) The compromise ultimately is that the senior citizens have agreed to vacate the McDonald’s between 11:00 and 3:00 so the McDonald’s can handle the lunch rush.