Thursday, October 07, 2004

Take a Totem and Wait Your Turn

This is probably the most pointless post I’ve ever written. No, really. You have been warned.

About once a week, I dine at a local greasy-spoon called King’s. After you place your order, the cashier hands you a plastic marker with a symbol on it, which you place on your table. If you’ve never been to King’s before, you might think your symbol is a number. After all, the symbols happen to look a lot like “43,” “86,” and so on. But in fact, the symbols are something else. For lack of a better word, they are totems.

You see, these markers do not correspond to any numerical sequence. They are handed out in random order. If the guy in front of you gets 62, you might get 17 or 74. They serve the sole purpose of identifying you as the person with a particular order. When an order comes up, the server looks at the symbol on the order slip, and then looks around the room to find a customer with a matching symbol on his marker. The symbols could as easily be flowers, stars, curlicues, and happy faces.

Despite its seemingly haphazard quality, King’s totem system works well enough. It has the advantage of not requiring manpower to reorder the totems after each use. And although I’ve never seen it happen, the totems’ number-like appearance might permit easier vocalization. If the customer with a specific totem can’t be found, I suppose yelling “fifty-two!” is preferable to yelling “flower with four petals and a leaf.” On the other hand, randomization of the number-like totems may sometimes result in similar totems appearing too close together. Customer 44 might angrily wonder why 46 got his meal before she did.

I don’t really have a point here. For some reason, I’m just amused by this system.

6 comments:

Michael Yuri said...

Two quick comments:

1) Just a few days ago I ate at a burger place that used exactly the same system. I placed my order at the counter and was handed a number. The other numbers I saw in the pile were not in any recognizable order. I don't specifically remember seeing this system before, but I would bet it's not that uncommon.

2) Some places do use actual totems. In some Finagle-A-Bagel chain restaurants, when you place your order you're given a placard with a drawing and the name of one of their bagel flavors. So you may have a card that says "Honey Grain" or "Salt" for example.

Anonymous said...

Even when numbers are handed out in order, that is often only or mainly for convenience, e.g., ease of "totem"-generation (sequential is just easier than random for a computer to generate), since in many cases the numbers mainly serve to identify you as the customer with a particular order. Our lives are filled with numbers that do not (as their main function) sort or quantify. License number, social security number, credit card number, ISBN, FedEx package number, telephone number, IP address, airline flight number, serial numbers, and so on.

Eric H said...

A local restaurant uses country flags. It's very educational. They used to use them for giving out freebies: guess the country whose flag this is, and win a free desert.

Michael Stastny said...

The last thing an economist would do is to ask the subjects under investigation why they behave in a certain manner...

Illy said...

King's is clearly not the only establishment to use the totem-number system. My local World Wrapps does the same.

Anonymous said...

I can only think of a few restaurants in Austin that don't use that system, but that do use numbers. And those places are ones that give you your number on your receipt, not on a little thingy that goes on your table. It's become normal to me.
Ellen