More Restaurants Giving Power to the People

Chris Kofitsas has the same problem that many people do; throughout the day his iPhone 5 becomes a hunk of plastic and metal when the battery dies.

So when Kofitsas, the founder and owner of New World Design Builders, was designing Willow Road, a restaurant in New York City that opened in December, he came up with the idea to install power outlets under the lip of the bar.

“I have to constantly find places to charge my phone throughout the day,” Kofitsas said. “I thought that it would be interesting for me to put outlets on the front of the bar so people could charge their own phones.”

Of course many places such as Wi-Fi cafes, McDonald’s, Starbucks and various bars already have outlets or kiosks for customers to plug in, and enterprising people can find outlets along the walls in out-of-the-way places to charge their phones. But more full-service traditional restaurants are starting to include customer-accessible outlets into their design.

“Everyone who’s seen it has been like ‘why didn’t anyone think of that before,’” Kofitsas said. “Now I put outlets at all bar faces as part of our drawing process.”

Kofitsas took a step further and added small holders, some made from commonly found items such as bath soap dishes, to hold the phones while they charge.

Federico Castellucci, who owns Georgia-based Castellucci Hospitality Group, designed outlets for the face of the bar in his restaurant the Iberian Pig when the bistro was built in 2009. When he built his third restaurant, Double Zero Napoletana, in 2011, he also included the new feature.

“I recognized the problem when I was working out of coffee shops and thought it would be a cool feature for restaurants,” Castellucci said in an email.

Castellucci said patrons are catching on. “It’s not super popular, but it does get used,” he said.

And there’s no shortage of people who need them. According to a recent Pew Center survey, 93 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 own a cellphone, and the number of all Americans who own cellphones grew to 83 percent in December 2012, up from 73 percent in April 2006. Most smart phones today have a talk time of about eight to 10 hours, with some exceptions. But people use phones for more than just talking, namely Internet browsing, using applications, and even checking the weather, which drains batteries even faster.

But battery life in cellphones and other mobile devices is likely to gradually improve.

In the next five years new breakthroughs will make battery life last more than two times the charges, and within 10 years it could be three or four times, according to Harold Kung, a chemical and biological engineering professor at Northwestern University.

But even with better batteries, Kung thinks public outlets in places such as restaurants will be essential.

“Longer battery life doesn’t mean they will last forever,” Kung said. “The components inside the mobile devices are getting more efficient energy wise. But we are also using them to do more and more things.”

The Elephant Bar Restaurant in Lakewood, Colo., prepared early for the power outlet trend. The restaurant opened nearly nine years ago with a pair of outlets on the lip of the bar and two dining tables with nearby outlets.

“It’s definitely nice to have,” Charlie Curtis, the restaurant’s general manager, said over the phone.

Now some restaurant groups are now catching on to the fad.

“We are currently planning to install more power outlets in our restaurants for convenient use by our guests,” said Heather Leonard, a representative of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, which is based in Columbus, Ohio.

Other restaurants are fully invested in the idea, including 4Food, a restaurant in New York City, which has outlets under just about every table. The restaurant, which opened near Grand Central Terminal about two and a half years ago, caters to the businesspeople in the area.

Anna Karpman was relieved to be able to charge her white iPhone 4S while eating with her friends at 4Food. Karpman, 19, and her friends were visiting the Morgan Library and Museum, but her phone died. The group checked into 4Food for the first time for lunch and Karpman said she was surprised to see the outlets right under her table.

“I don’t have to plug it into a weird ambiguous corner and I don’t have to check on it,” she said.

Daryl Uy, a night manager at 4Food, said:  “Everybody that comes in here can sit down and plug in their device. We rely on our devices so much now that we can’t live without them.”

With all the free electricity flying around it seems like this could be costly for restaurants, but some managers said differently.

“I don’t think I would ever open a restaurant without doing it,” said Kevin Richer, the general manager at North End Grill, a high-end New York restaurant built in 2011 with outlets around the bar. “It’s completely worth it. We’re using so much power that if 10 extra people charge their phone in a day we won’t even notice it.”

But not everybody is for giving power to the people.

“As full-service restaurants, we do not encourage the use of computers while dining,” said Eric Morcus, marketing director of the California based-Kaiser Restaurant Group. “It serves as a distraction. Are they here to eat or charge their phones? Now if we were at the airport, a different story it would be.”

Kofitsas, however, loved the idea so much he plans to take it another step further at Willow Road.

“We didn’t put it in yet, though, but we were looking into putting power strips there so you can simply rest your phone on top of the power strip and it would charge,” he said.