Cell phone or free ice cream? Chick-fil-A wants you to choose

Chick-fil-A, the famous chicken sandwich chain restaurant, is offering a new deal in select locations, offering customers a free ice cream cone if they turn off their cell phones for the entirety of the meal. 

Rashid Umar Abbasi/Reuters
A franchise sign is seen above a Chick-fil-A freestanding restaurant after its grand opening in Midtown, New York October 3, 2015.

What is it going to take for people to put down their phones? Chick-fil-A believes ice cream could do the trick.

The fast food chain is now offering free ice cream cones to customers who turn their phones off for their entire meal in select restaurants.

“Although our phones were meant to bring us closer together, they can sometimes have the opposite effect,” the company said in a statement Tuesday.

Called the “Cell Phone Coop Challenge,” patrons are challenged to place their electronics into a white, wired box – the “coop” – and refrain from retrieving them while they eat.

“We really want our restaurant to provide a sense of community for our customers, where family and friends can come together and share quality time with one another,” Brad Williams, the Georgia-based Chick-fil-A operator responsible for the idea, said in a release.

“But as we all know, technology increasingly demands more of our time and can be a big distraction, even while we’re eating,” he continued. “This got me thinking about what we could do to reduce this distraction during meals.”

So, Mr. Williams and his team came up with the Coop Challenge. Currently, there are more than 150 locations out of the chain’s nearly 2,000 stores nationwide that participate in the challenge, though the company suggests reaching out to local operators to see whether they offer the promotion.

As cited by the chicken sandwich restaurant, Americans spend an average of 4.7 hours per day on their phones, according to a 2015 Informate Mobile Intelligence study. And despite the fact that most people consider cell phones on the dinner table to be inappropriate, there’s a considerable generational gap within this dataset. Millennials born after 1982, for instance, tend to disagree with the overall opinion, according to the Center for the Digital Future.

Sure enough, the habit carries some social consequences. A study published in the journal Environment and Behavior found that beyond the variables of age, gender, ethnicity, and mood, dinner companions tend to have more meaningful and empathetic conversations without the presence of a mobile device on the table.

And in the wake of this growing trend, Chick-fil-A isn’t the first restaurant to try to dissuade customers from picking up their phones. In Sioux City, Iowa, servers at Sneaky’s Chicken offer their guests a 10 percent discount if they put their phones in a special box during dinner.

“We noticed that within our own family we were way too connected to our phones and thought maybe we could get others to join us [in disconnecting] for just a bit,” co-owner Christy Wright told The Huffington Post in 2014.

Some places – like Rogue 24 in Washington, D.C., or the Violet Hour in Chicago – have gone as far as banning the electronic devices. But these policies haven't exactly been met with excitement. It seems that, at the end of the day, incentives are more effective than restrictions.

According to Ms. Wright at Sneaky’s, everyone is a fan of the deal – even those who work there.

“Everybody loves it,” Wright said. “The staff is arguing over who’s going to work Wednesday night now.”

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