It’s not free to charge your cellphone at the Pug, an H Street watering hole. Customers who need a boost when their batteries die must pay a price.
The price is their dignity.
Tired of the perpetual requests to charge phones — and then track down the owners once the phones are juiced up — bartender Russell De Leon purchased striped top hats, a la “The Cat in the Hat,” in a variety of colors. Anyone who wants a charge has to wear one of the hats for as long as the phone is plugged in.
“We won’t give you a hard time, but we’re not going to charge it if you don’t wear the hat,” owner Tony Tomelden said. No one is spared: “My wife had to wear the hat.”
When the choice is between wearing an ugly hat for a little while, or not being able to text, Snapchat or swipe on Tinder for an entire evening, people always choose the hat. Embarrassment is fleeting, and not having access to Instagram is, well, also fleeting. Once your phone is juiced up, you can milk the situation for likes by posting photos of yourself wearing the hat of shame.
There’s a clinical term for this antsiness about a dead phone: nomophobia, or no-mobile-phone phobia, the fear of not having access to your smartphone.
“Nomophobes feel extremely anxious when their phones go dead, because they tend to have a strong desire to be available, to stay connected, to have information at their fingertips,” said Caglar Yildirim, a PhD candidate at Iowa State University studying human-computer interaction.
Of course, our collective phone addiction is nothing new. What has changed are customers’ expectations. In short: Everyone assumes that every place should be able to charge their phone, every time. And not just restaurants: I was once having a text conversation with a friend who suddenly went silent. When she returned to the exchange 20 minutes later, she apologized: Her battery was running low, so she’d handed her phone to the CVS pharmacist to charge.
“People always use their cellphones, but it wasn’t as integral a part of everyday life as it is now,” said Vinoteca owner Paul Carlson, thinking back to the occasional plea for an outlet that he’d get when he opened the Northwest Washington wine bar and bistro eight years ago. Nowadays, “they’re always inquiring where the nearest plug is.”
His bartenders field multiple requests each night to charge phones behind the bar. And in the restaurant, he often sees phones semi-unattended, plugged into wall outlets. That’s why, when he opened his new restaurant, the Royal, last year in Northwest, he made sure to install outlets near every table and at every other seat at the bar. If people need a charger, it’s no problem — his staffers just pull one from the collection of chargers that other guests have left behind.
Not every restaurant will be so accommodating. Some bartenders think the constant requests for a charge interfere with their ability to do their jobs. Especially if the customer doesn’t ask politely.
“There’s just now this attitude, like, ‘What do you mean, you’re not going to charge this phone?’ ” said Tomelden, referring to guests who don’t believe him about the hat.
“They’re just, like, rude to start with — add a little bit of alcohol to that, and it gets worse,” said Jo-Jo Valenzuela, vice president of the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild. “If you’re going to be asking for something like that, you should be a lot more polite.”
Valenzuela always accommodates his guests, but some nights, he gets as many as five phone-charging requests in an hour — more than the number of chargers or outlets available. Bartenders used to always keep a lighter on hand for guests who needed a smoke. “Nowadays when I tend bar, I bring chargers,” Valenzuela said.
Last year, at Seattle restaurant Hitchcock, chef Brendan McGill ranted on Facebook about a restaurant’s role in charging phones: “Folks seem to be taking less responsibility for their personal devices and their respective batteries,” he wrote, asking whether he should “make some groundbreaking policy, say, a $5 menu charge for using our well-stocked electrical charging station?”
Ultimately, the restaurant went with a less contentious solution. “We ended up buying a charging system,” McGill wrote in an email. “It’s worked great.”
Battery anxiety has spawned a micro-industry of pay-by-the-minute cellphone charging lockers. A portable battery — or, even better, free in-bar outlets — are now a basic amenity in restaurants and bars.
“It’s the new coat hook,” said Fritz Brogan, who owns Mission in Dupont Circle and Hawthorne on U Street. He has installed both regular and USB outlets at every seat in the latter.
Brogan used to have a charger locked into a wall at Mission, but, he says, a guest stole it within four hours of installation. He used to let bartenders charge phones behind the bar, but that became too much of a chore. “It was slowing things down,” he said. “Other customers were annoyed that they weren’t getting their drinks fast enough.”
Besides, he didn’t want to be responsible for any mishaps.
“We had an incident where someone had liquor spilled on their phone. The customer wanted us to pay for it,” he said. A few times, phones would mysteriously disappear from behind the bar. “We ended up paying for it,” he said. “That was the last straw.”
According to Stephen O’Brien, partner at the hospitality-industry-focused law firm Mallios & O’Brien, businesses that offer to charge phones — as opposed to just allowing customers to use their outlets with their own chargers — open themselves up to risk. “Once the business takes custody of a patron’s property, the business owes the patron a duty to take reasonable care of that property,” O’Brien said in an email. “Failure to take reasonable care subjects the business to liability for the value of the property.”
Still, he wouldn’t necessarily advise all bars to refuse to charge phones. “Paying for the occasional mishap is a reasonable price for keeping customers happy,” he said, “and at the bar longer.”
Also, refusing could hurt a business, as multiple Yelp reviews of bars across town attest.
High-end cocktail bars, like Derek Brown’s Columbia Room in downtown Washington, never refuse to charge a phone — not only because they’re in the business of hospitality, but also because of their clientele. Brown recalled the Saturday when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died and two lawyers came to the bar and spent the whole time on their phones.
“I have to look out for them, because they have important jobs,” Brown said.
If you’re in a bar and you do need a charge, etiquette expert Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily, offers some common-sense advice: Ask politely, and “wait for a moment when the bartender is not too busy,” she said.
If they say no, “accept that politely.” If they say yes, “Don’t ask them to be your personal secretary” and check your texts or messages for you. “I also wouldn’t leave it there all night and hog that amenity,” she said. The same advice applies to airports, concerts or anywhere else you see people congregating around outlets.
But if you’re in a bar, this last piece of advice should go without saying: Tip well.