The Empty Restaurant Syndrome by Reb MacRath

Here it is in all its horror:

     Oh, the restaurant is lovely: superbly constructed and furnished. And the fair on the menu is top of the line. But the passers-by all look and see the same thing: a frighteningly empty place that no one wants to visit...because no one else dares to go inside first. The one or two four-star reviews on the windows do nothing to dispel our fears. Nor do the desperate expressions of the staff who are looking for something to do. Not even the celestial aromas wafting through the vents or the Grand Opening Prices.

     We don't feel good about this. The place deserves a chance, we know. But we can't escape the feeling that the place is empty for a damned good reason. And so we shuffle down the street to stand in line at one of the happening places. Like this:

     Now, then. We've started with something that most can relate to: the strong tendency to assume that a crowded restaurant is crowded for good reason. Have you ever seen a play in a nearly empty theater? If so, didn't the emptiness at least somewhat color your viewing? Or to play with this from another angle: Why do successful male seducers usually go hunting with 'wing men'? Why do beauties on the rebound often go out with just-friends? Or--hey, here's one for all of us--why do ebook writers hustle for reviews when they're launching their books? And why do they continue to hustle..and hustle...and hustle for more?

     Now, I'm not sure that a hundred reviews will guarantee a book's success--even a very well done one. But I do know that readers will have a hard time taking a chance on a book that has none--or even one or two. With a dozen reviews--at least one or two from well-respected review sites--our chances improve dramatically. Even so, we're not going anywhere without the Secret Sauce:

     Visitors or viewers need to tingle from the sense of an electric buzz. Whether five or fifty patrons sit inside that restaurant, we need to feel it's a happening place. No hangdog expressions, staff. We need purpose in your movements, pride and content in your eyes, confidence in every word. Not easy to do when you're just starting out. Certainly no easier than for a man who's lonely and down on his luck to come on like a star with the ladies or for a newbie ebook writer to stand out and make a name.

     The good news is that there are ways. Elizabethan playwrights packed the theaters with paid 'clappers'. And not long ago, when sneak previews of films was more common, the seats were similarly filled with studio lackeys--who laughed and cheered too loudly for even the most dreadful films. They completed score cards--5 stars, all--and praised the films in the lobby. Bold restaurateurs who refuse to go under may pay their shills to pack the seats or hire flamingo (stet!) guitarists. And, of course, there's no end to the fun and games played out here in Ebooklandia to gain more reviews and boost sales.

          My thinking has evolved. Each of us must set our own boundaries. But there's nothing inherently moral about spending 10 or 15 years learning one's craft, then watching the crowds stop at your window...then recoil from the stink of failure and the desperate look in your eyes.

          The Empty Restaurant Syndrome sucks. And we all need to beat it to stay in the game.

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Nick Green said…
I would certainly pay top whack to see a flamingo guitarist. ;-)
Unknown said…
Hmmm... except, I for one crave and seek out the empty places. I would always pick a quiet or empty restaurant over a crowded one. When I used to go to the cinema I went when it was empty or at least managed to sit far away from others... (I have boycotted cinema for some years now due to the fact that money spent making films could generally be better spent solving world poverty!!! Cool moral stance but not a 'crowded' one!!)
But the 'crowded/noise' thing is maybe why when looking for books I'm not bothered by reviews, I do my own searching and find for myself. Reviews from people I respect is one thing. Blanket reviews... not bothered. Just another opinion really unless it can be backed up with something more than noise. And it's probably why I don't 'sell' many books myself. For me social media offers the chance to give people informed choice opportunities and then let them choose rather than waving knickers in the air and making a fuss. For me crowded doesn't mean good any more than talked about means good. There's room in the world for all of us after all... and I liked your post. But I'm so glad I don't have to go to 'happening' places either in real or virtual life. Now I'm being asked to prove I'm not a robot. I wasn't last time I looked, but who knows...
Bill Kirton said…
Unlike Nick, I'd scuttle quickly past at the sight of that guitarist, Reb. Mind you, the sight of a plate of grub which has been carefully 'designed' with smears and drizzles and foams (ugh!) and towers and manicured carrots and trace elements of 70+ ingredients would have the same effect. All of which proves I'm an unsophisticated glutton and sidesteps the point of your analogy. I loathe the idea of papering the house (the modern version of the Elizabethan clappers, in case that's not an American expression) and canvassing reviews so maybe we need a short 'How-to' piece on selling enough books to buy a yacht and a private island. My needs are few.
Dennis Hamley said…
My usual reaction to an empty restaurant is to go straight in. The chances are the food will be good, I'll certainly be served quickly and probably attentively and my smile of happy contentment will not only bring other punters in but earn the proprietor's undying gratitude. However, though this strategy may work with restaurants, it's not going to work with books. Yes, I confess I do tout around, though mildly, for reviews, but only from those whose opinions I respect. I take the risk that they may hate the book, in which case I'm glad if no review appears. A tiny smidgeon of corruption isn't too reprehensible, I suppose. I sometimes wish I had the energy to try for a bit more.
Nick Green said…
Actually some very good points here. I think that one of the strongest urges among most people (though many writers are the exception) is the need to conform, to follow the herd. People want to be seen liking what everyone else appears to like - and after all, it's a pretty good rule of thumb from a survival point of view. Go where other people are, because they must be surviving on something. It's only the minority who see the crowds and think, 'Their resources are going to run out soon, if they keep on like this.'

But yes, most people are drawn to crowds, not deserted places. If you think about it, that's kind of obvious. If you're seen to be liked, then more people will want to get a piece of that.
julia jones said…
Enjoyed the piece and agree with Reb about the importance of peer reassurance (and, ideally some good reviews. That's why, for me, being part of AE has been (and is) invaluable.
I'm with Cally. I do like empty places, too. It depends, actually. If I'm out and about with the family, I don't mind the hustle-bustle of central London eateries. but if I'm on my own and I have a book, for instance, I prefer to be in a desolate place or one with few customers.

Great post. Thanks.
Lee said…
I quite like writing in crowded cafés, whereas empty ones just don't do it for me - odd, because you'd think the noise would be distracting, but in fact it seems to have the opposite effect. Otherwise, the 'crowded restaurant' approach to books obviously works for a lot of people, though I will almost never buy or read a popular book till all the brouhaha has well & truly died away. And I certainly don't trust writers who tell us how large a crowd they draw!

Dennis, I actually respect the reviewer who hates my work if he reviews it thoughtfully. Sure, I may bristle at first - that stuff is bound to hurt - but in the end, it's a lot better than the bland cheers which mean nothing except that the reader is likely to be an idiot.
Anonymous said…
None of the flamingos I know can play guitar. And the fare may be fair but I've never seen it advertised as such. But at least those are not clichéd usages or malapropisms?
I know what you mean, Reb. A crowded (but not too crowded to be comfortable) restaurant suggests that it will be pretty good. I'll give the empty place a try too, depending on the time of day and how nice it looks. But also, from a retail point of view, you have to make sure people can look inside. It is a fact that people are very reluctant to go into a place where they can't see properly through a window of some sort! (It's probably biological, but it's true!) I suppose that applies to books too... Isn't that 'herd' thing interesting, though? I was discussing this only the other day, while watching a TV programme about the Beatles. I was very young, only eleven or twelve when they first became popular, but I can still vividly remember the sense that here was something different and enticing and you just had to join in. Nobody could predict it in advance. Nobody did, except perhaps Brian Epstein, and Freda Kelly, the secretary of their fan club (the excellent film was about Freda) but it spiralled out of control in a very short space of time, and against all the odds since the London companies were saying 'nobody is interested in Liverpool.' Which I suppose only goes to prove that nobody really knows anything!
glitter noir said…
Some very interesting reactions here. Thanks, all. Now I'll just add a micro-story. Back in Portland, a 24-hour café/bakery had opened...and NOBODY would go in. The layout was discouraging, for one --far too many tables. Even though crowds were ready for an all-night internet café, no one wanted to be first. Finally, I took a chance because I needed a place with some outlets and I liked the u-shaped center counter. The place turned out to have great coffee and the food too was good, reasonably priced. From my one-person presence, a few more patrons emerged. Hmm. I convinced the owner that, for now at least, the dozens of empty tables were killing him. He eliminated altogether about fifteen tables between the U-shaped counter and the serving agree, while keeping tables elsewhere. Bold mover: those looking in now saw an empty area which bothered them far less than the empty tables. By the time I left Portland, the place had become one of the city's most popular cafes.
This kind of thing fascinates me. We had a young 'merchandising' consultant visit our community shop - where it's vital that every bit of space earns its keep - otherwise it will close and the village will lose an amenity. He was incredibly helpful - but then he had worked for Tesco's He looked at the big dresser in the cafe which was all prettily but randomly laid out and said 'do you sell anything from that?' We admitted that we didn't. He said 'that's because it doesn't look as if it's for sale. Do you mind if I play about with it?' We told him to go ahead. He shuffled jars of jam and pickles and packets of biscuits about a bit, so that they looked nice, but were more or less in rows. 'Now they look as if they're for sale' he said. And now these same items sell! People will almost never buy the last item on the shelf, which is why supermarkets restock and 'face up' regularly, putting things to the front of shelves and facing the right way. So do we. There must be a way of applying this kind of thing to online selling. I suppose Amazon does a pretty good job with the way their site is designed!
Lee said…
Interesting story, Reb, and not really surprising. Has the owner added more tables now?

The question is, is it really possible to compare a physical space with a virtual one? Maybe to a certain extent, but I suspect that the dynamics differ in many essentials. Or do they? I'm far too ignorant to hazard a guess, but if nothing else, it seems a lot easier to fake reviews/stars etc. online.
glitter noir said…
Yes, 'anonymous', the flamingo usage was a joke, which I've clarified with the word 'stet'. I'd planned to refer to a 'marinara' band...but feared some might miss the joke and think I was...sauced?

Lee, good response. But I don't think it's too far-fetched to compare virtual and physical spaces. A niece who's working in a new chichi restaurant told me that the staff are offered bonuses for every friend or family member they can bring into the place. And, years ago, when I interviewed a well-known clothier in Toronto, I noticed something...strange about the people in the store: talking and laughing a little too loudly. When I asked him about this later, he laughed and admitted that they were his shills. I'm not sure if that restaurant has added more tables--I'll let you know when I find out later, on a return visit to the west coast.

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