OPINION

Chew on Free Market at Indian Restaurants

June 22, 2007
Ergo

Over lunch at a restaurant table, sitting by myself, I happened to be thinking about the logical operators "and" and "or" and their implications in the truth-value of propositions. But anyhow, my thought process was interrupted by a fellow Indian who decided to seat himself beside me at my table because all the other tables were taken during the rush of the lunch hour.

It is a rather common practice in India for total strangers to share a table — no matter how small — during their meals. However, this practice is mostly restricted to low-end eateries and Indian fast-food joints. They usually get a rush of crowd during the lunch hours and after-work evening hours.

What struck me about this practice was that it was a simple but elegant expression of free market operations. During the peak meal times, there is a large demand for fast and inexpensive food, which brings hordes of hungry patrons to these restaurants at the same time.

More people seated at one table means more people are quickly served their meals,
More incoming customers are given seats to have their meals quickly,
The restaurant makes double or triple the money than normal per table by this practice,
The servers (waiters) make more money in tips due to double or several checks per table,
All this extra and efficient earnings per table — plus the low cost of wages for servers earning handsome amounts in tips — allow the restaurateur to control prices and provide cheap meals for his patrons,
Which keeps the patron satisfied because he is getting a quick and inexpensive meal,
Which means the patron will continue to patronize the restaurant, thus sustaining a business in the economy,
And in the end — everyone is satisfied, and the transaction has benefited all the parties involved.

Free market — supply meets demand — no regulations — market value prices — efficient service — mutual benefit.

Of course, a huge part of this transactional chain is the cultural aspect of Indians, who are pretty (extremely?) flexible with their notions of private space — if they even have one.

Such a practice would not work in the United States because Americans have a very rigid notion of private space and consider it invasive and offensive to violate this space.

But the beauty of the free market is that it allows such cultural considerations to seamlessly guide the transactional operations without external regulation, monitoring, or coercion.

To illustrate, even though Indians have little qualms about invasion of personal space when it comes to inexpensive fast-food eateries, they become highly attuned to their space issues when they visit expensive restaurants. This is again the operations of free market creating a framework of transactions that blends in cultural considerations. In expensive restaurants, the extra money you pay ensures (or is intended to ensure) not only exotic food but also a unique experience. And the money buys you the privilege to individually monitor who comes within the sphere of your pleasurable experience, i.e., who invades or shares your personal space--a stranger or your companion. The extra money affords you the legitimate demand to deny a stranger what you are experiencing.

The restaurateur has to respect this demand from his customers if he intends to continue his business of charging expensive rates for the food and ambience of his restaurant. Thus, the items on the menu are pricey and the tips given to servers are generally higher. Customers do not complain about this because it is a legitimate exchange of value for value--and all are benefiting from the transaction.

Now, such a thing cannot be expected from an Indian low-end, fast-food eatery because the items on the menu are not priced to provide you a value for more than just the meal. And as a customer, you are well aware of this fact and you do not complain. In addition to low price of the meal, as an Indian, you are also aware of the fact that cultural mores here do not permit you the luxury of personal space at a place not intended to be luxurious.

Thus, free market in Indian contexts allows for such variance in the practices observed among customers while eating out. This is because the essence of the free market is that everyone sorts out his own problems, devises his own solutions, and engages in the trade of values or ideas with others on a voluntary basis. If you don't like what you're getting, you have the right to withdraw from the transaction.

Free market in the American context means that Americans will not practice sharing tables with strangers in restaurants--not matter how inexpensive--because no one (or very few) is willing to enter such a transactional framework. As Americans, they are aware that personal space is not a matter of luxury but an expression of their individuality.

Thus, the free market system is not culture-bound. It is not a uniquely western phenomena unsuited for the needs and mores of non-western cultures. The free market need not be modified, tampered with, controlled, or monitored by government "checks and balances" because you are distrusting of this free-for-all "western" system.

The free market is simply a term designated to denote individual freedom in economic matters--and all individuals across the globe regardless of their culture have the right to be free.

This author writes from Mumbai, India under the pseudonym "Ergo." Ergo is an editor by profession, and writes regularly on his personal blog on a variety of topics from a philosophical perspective. Ergo adheres to the philosophical system of Objectivism--a system built by Ayn Rand--and explicitly champions reason, liberty, individualism, self-esteem, and rational self-interest.
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#1
debbieann
June 22, 2007
08:30 AM

I have seen plenty of americans sharing table space, they just ask first, is it ok if I sit here, and the answer is usually yes. that is at inexpensive restaurants. At the midrange a lot of restaurants are starting to have big communal table where they will seat one/two/three people together. I don't think it is "very few" . They enter the same transactional negotiation. It is true that this form of free market is not culture bound.

#2
Ergo
URL
June 22, 2007
08:44 AM

Well, my experience has been very different in the US. I've usually witnessed people waiting patiently in line for their tables in the US. Yes, in some fast-food joints like McDs or Wendy's and in certain communities the practice of sharing tables is observed more.
For example, if you go to any soul restaurants in African-American neighborhoods, a large part of the restaurant experience is precisely sharing tables with strangers. But this point is not relevant to my post because in this case the sharing is done deliberately even if there were free tables available.
I am discussing the situation when restaurants are crowded and, in India, the common practice is to share tables with strangers--and there is not even a presumption of asking for permission.

#3
Corporate Serf
June 22, 2007
09:05 AM

But Ergo,
People are paying a premium in the US for the personal space. The restaurant prices are nowhere close to the food prices, whereas in the dhabas it is. In chinese take outs in NYC, for example, you do see small tables and rush hour sharing.

You are probably right about the soul food restaurants, though that's probably more perception of a culture; rather than the actualities of a culture. Bit like the touristy gay places in the village. In both cases, you pay a premium for the "experience".


#4
amitscorpio
URL
June 22, 2007
09:40 AM

Very nicely written !!! pretty good example of free market the eateries are!!

well i think debbieann and Corporate Serf are right in their statements, there is sharing when required (in low cost eateries only). The queue is mostly in better off restaurants which are more prevalent in here.

// The servers (waiters) make more money in tips due to double or several checks per table,//
btw i don't remember anyone giving a tip at inexpensive eateries... the trend might have changed now!!!

#5
smallsquirrel
June 22, 2007
10:38 AM

Your supposition is simply not correct about the US. Debbieann is right.. in many lower end and lower mid-range eateries, and I am not just talking about McDonalds or Wendy's, it is commonplace to see people sharing tables. Go to any major city during lunchtime when tables are at a premium and people have ducked out of their offices and you will see it all the time.

Similarly, you're wrong about what you called "soul food" restaurants as well. In Washington DC, a predominantly African-American city, you won't necessarily find that table sharing is the norm.

Your suppositions about the US are very very skewed. So as you often do castigate others to learn more about what they are talking about BEFORE they share their views, here I would challenge you to do the same.

#6
Atlantean
URL
June 22, 2007
12:02 PM

Very well articulated! Many free market haters have created this impression that free markets are something that are "imposed" upon developing countries. Free markets are not economic policies to be imposed on anybody. When you say "free market", it simply expresses the state of the economy - that is, whether the markets run freely without any regulation or not.

#7
The Itinerant Indian
URL
June 22, 2007
03:56 PM

I like the piece for the precise reason that it is very immediate and something which a broad mass of people can relate to and examine in the light of their own experiences and validate/ repudiate. Without going into specifics, it is immediately apparent that the writer may not have personally experienced comparable situations elsewhere in the world.

But the immediacy of the topic, and its ability to provoke responses implies this should be interesting to watch the comments evolve.

How many comments before we take sides and become polarised.... watch this space!

#8
The Itinerant Indian
URL
June 22, 2007
03:56 PM

I like the piece for the precise reason that it is very immediate and something which a broad mass of people can relate to and examine in the light of their own experiences and validate/ repudiate. Without going into specifics, it is immediately apparent that the writer may not have personally experienced comparable situations elsewhere in the world.

But the immediacy of the topic, and its ability to provoke responses implies this should be interesting to watch the comments evolve.

How many comments before we take sides and become polarised.... watch this space!

#9
Ergo
URL
June 23, 2007
01:33 AM

The point of my article is to precisely illustrate how people--if left free to sort out their own issues--will create transactional frameworks that can benefit everyone involved, because those who don't find a benefit will choose to not partake in that particular transaction and will start one of his own elsewhere.

The point is to show that free market systems are applicable universally to any culture anywhere.

While my own experience in the US was to witness people patiently waiting for seats rather than invading someone else's private space, the culture may be changing now with the influx of diverse cultures in cities and the rise of multiculturalism as a movement. But this simply goes to illustrate the point of my article even more.

That said, I would still argue that personal space is still a more pertinent matter for Americans, and they like to preserve their spaces as much as they can. Sharing tables at restaurants might be slowly becoming a common phenomena precisely because the cultural attitudes of non-American peoples (eg. Latinos, African-American, Indian, Chinese) are slowly influencing the kinds of framework of transactions that occur in American resturants. In other words, the people from other cultures who did not originally share the American predilection for personal space are now the ones shaping the framework of transactions occurring in restaurants in the cities with high levels of diversity.

All of that said, the Indian practice of sharing tables is most definitely distinct from anything you observe in America. Here in India, the presumption is that you cannot make a demand for personal space in a low-end eatery--that would be preposterous and even plain silly. Strangers don't feel they need to apologize for sitting inches next to you in a restaurant--they do it without the need for permission or acknowledgement. Indeed, even the person already seated at the table finds this behavior *hardly* intrusive and accepts it as the normal state of affairs.

Note that this is a *deliberate* although unconsciously created framework within which free transactions are occurring between all parties concerned.

Note that this framework does not work in expensive, high-end restaurant precisely because the values involved have changed.

#10
John
June 23, 2007
06:04 PM

Railroad diners are an exception to this rule in America also--though you are talking about unusual circumstances in this case: a traditional dining car has 12 tables, seating a total of 36 or 48 people. If people didn't share tables, passengers would be eating dinner at midnight.

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