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One Chef’s Ingenious Solution to Phones at the Table

Marco Canora wants to help diners unplug at Hearth

Photo: tong patong / Shutterstock
Monica Burton is the deputy editor of

Diners at Hearth, the newly health-conscious, 13-year-old restaurant from James Beard award-winning chef Marco Canora, may have noticed a new addition to their place settings in recent weeks. Next to plates, napkins, and utensils there are now boxes. Some are old cigar boxes, others kitschy Etsy finds — but all of them are big enough to contain a few cell phones, because the boxes are Canora’s solution to what he views as harmful cell phone addiction.

“If there’s one time in the 24 hours in your day that’s a time to engage with the person you’re with, it makes sense to me that it’s around the dinner table,” Canora says.

Canora isn’t personally bothered by people using their phones in his restaurant’s dining room. But, after downloading an app that tracks iPhone and iPad use, he was astonished to learn how many hours he spent connected, and began to notice how much time everyone else spends on their phones, too. And so, just as he revamped the Hearth menu to add nutrient-rich foods, Canora decided to do something to take care of his customers’ digital health.

One of Hearth’s cell phone boxes.
Photo by Marco Canora

Initially, the chef thought about implementing a sort of “phone check,” with a sign suggesting that diners leave their phones behind before sitting down to dinner. But that was too complicated. “People have decision fatigue in New York, and everywhere really, and we didn’t want to add to it,” Canora says. (Other restaurants have instituted straight-up phone bans, or discounts for those who voluntarily surrender their phones.)

The boxes at Hearth are unobtrusive and don’t require any additional interaction between server and guest. “The hope is that you sit down, you get your menus, and then you’re like, ‘What is this box?’ And then you open the box and there’s this very simple note.”

The note reads: “We’d like to invite you to unplug during your meal here at Hearth. Feel free to use this box, put your phone away, and connect with your fellow diners.”

Canora wants to make it clear that he isn’t trying to be judgmental. “If you want to do it you can do it, if you don’t want to do it, don’t. We don’t have to tell a story, we don’t have to ask you a question. It’s just a box on the table that’s there if you want it.”

Since he’s added the boxes to Hearth’s tabletops, he says “six out of 10 times,” diners choose to participate. “I think people are digging it.”

Another box.
Photo by Marco Canora

Hearth’s management staff pointed out to Canora that no cell phones means no Hearth Instagram photos. Social media can be key to a restaurant’s marketing strategy, but Canora is unfazed. “We are all willing to sacrifice that. I feel that this is remarkable, and they’ll hopefully talk about the box and talk about their food post meal.”

Canora admits that he probably wouldn’t feel this way “if I was an ice cream cone shop,” but splashy, #eatingfortheinsta food isn’t what Hearth is selling. “We’ve been here for 13 years. We want people to have an experience that is calm, and this is the way to help get there.”