Unplugging at mealtime

Disconnect from your electronic devices and reconnect with those dining with you.

This is the message that The Manhattan Fish Market and at least 13 cafes in Singapore want to send to their customers.

The Manhattan Fish Market, a casual- dining restaurant, encourages diners to put their mobile phones in a box and focus on having face-to-face interaction.

The cardboard box, which comes with suggested conversation topics, sits on the dining table in full view of service staff. If it remains unopened at the end of the meal, diners who surrender their mobile device will each receive a $5 dining voucher.

The restaurant's chief executive officer Davy Wee said it came up with the Unplug social initiative after its service staff saw the "growing phenomenon" of people whipping out their phones instead of talking to others during meals.

A total of 10,000 Unplug boxes were made and one box is placed on every table at each of the 16 outlets. Service staff are expected to explain the initiative to diners.

When SundayLife! visited the Plaza Singapura outlet last week, most of the diners were seen putting aside their devices.

Graduate Tan Kheng Ming, 24, said: "The whole point of meeting is to catch up. Putting our phones in the box prevents them from distracting us."

Those who did not give up their phones cited reasons such as "I'm waiting for an urgent call" and "I wanted to surf the Internet".

But there were hardly any takers at the chain's Junction 8 outlet on Wednesday night. And of the 10 diners interviewed, only two did without their phones during their meal.

The other eight said they did not take part as no one told them about Unplug.

Student Frank He, 32, added: "If I had known that I could get a return voucher by using the box, I would have put my phone in immediately."

In response, the restaurant's spokesman said the staff could have missed the chance to introduce the boxes as it was peak period, but added that the situation has been "immediately rectified".

Since the launch of Unplug on Jan 17, the restaurant chain has given out more than $100,000 worth of dining vouchers, which works out to more than 20,000 diners.

While the initiative is targeted at those aged between 18 and 34 who are deemed "highly likely" to whip out their mobile devices at mealtimes, the restaurant's spokesman said the response has been positive across age groups.

The promotion ends next Sunday but the message to reconnect does not. "We will be more than happy to continue offering the Unplug box to diners," he said.

Every guest who leaves his phone in the box will still get a $5 voucher, as long as the boxes are still available.

A dozen other cafes here are also encouraging patrons to focus on their dining companions.

They have tied up with the creators of "Put It On Friend Mode", a 10-week long campaign (www.putitonfriendmode.com) launched in December by four final-year undergraduates from Nanyang Techno- logical University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

The campaign aims to get people to make this pledge online: "I pledge to give my friend(s) my utmost and undivided attention by putting my phone face- down."

The four creators - Lee Yumei, 22, and Malvin Chua, Chan Jing Hao and Jonathan Tan, all 24 - have designated Feb 22 as Friend Mode Day. On this day, those who have made their pledge will qualify for special deals and discounts at participating cafes, such as Suprette and Pies & Coffee.

About half of the cafes will offer a 10 per cent discount on the bill, while the others will have deals such as one-for-one hot drinks. At least 1,300 people have made their pledge so far and they will flash a mailer to qualify for the discounts.

Mr Chua said: "There is a need to incentivise people to commit to 'friend mode' as people always ask, 'What is in it for me?'"

Backstage Cafe in Kallang Way will be offering one-for-one coffee on Friend Mode Day. Its director, Ms Oh Poh Tin, 31, said her staff will ask customers who redeem the offer to "kindly put their phones into a basket".

Ms June Tan, 24, who co-owns Lola's Cafe in Kovan, said her staff will go round telling customers about Friend Mode Day on Feb 22.

"To not only put the phone aside but to also put it face-down is a good idea as it is easy to get distracted by notifications that pop up on the screen," she said.


Do you and your family unplug your mobile devices during mealtimes? Share your experience and write to suntimes@sph.com.sg.

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