The Pink’s Paradox: excessively long food lines as overly strong signals of quality
There is a great hot dog joint here in Los Angeles called Pink’s Famous Hot Dogs. I love their delicious chili dogs. I am a huge fan of the location’s classic L.A. style (parts of the best film ever made were filmed on the site, and there’s a probably false rumor that Orson Welles got obese because he was addicted to Pink’s chili dogs). They’re located a quick drive from where I work. And I never, ever go there.
What explains this apparently counterintuitive result? Why don’t I patronize this nearby beloved eatery more often, or at least some of the time? My reason is simple: The wait is way, way too long. Pink’s doesn’t just have a 15-20 minute wait at meal times like many local eateries. Rather, at almost any time of day, the line to get a Pink’s chili (or any other) dog snakes through a few switchbacks, up La Brea, and back into their parking lot, frequently lasting a good hour. At peak times, the line has been said to approach 1.5 or two hours (and here, I’m going on word of mouth because, as you’ll gather from this post so far, I’m deterred by the long line and haven’t actually experienced it).
Classic L&E would suggest that this isn’t a paradox at all, and that the line merely reveals the unusually strong preferences of the public for Pink’s chili dogs, meaning that they really are worth the interminable wait. And while this is an empirical question, and while tastes are subjective and highly variable, I can’t buy that account. I can understand waiting in line for hours, say, to obtain critical medical services, or in a bread line in Soviet Russia where the only alternative is starving. I can even imagine waiting in line for a couple hours to get tickets for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see your favorite performer appear live. But for chili dogs? No way. Something more than simple preference satisfaction has to be going on.
So what explains the Pink’s paradox? Why is it that demand for these chili dogs continues to grow, even as the experience costs and actual costs associated with its food increase at an even greater rate (and appear to swamp the benefits of eating even the tastiest chili dog)? And what does this tell us about the rationality (or irrationality) of line-waiting generally? I discuss possible conjectures responding to each of these questions below the fold.
First, perhaps the Pink’s line is an example of simple groupthink, or herd behavior. The simple, and less charitable, version of this story is that people tend to mindlessly repeat the common behavior of others, so that people unthinkingly wait too long for Pink’s chili dogs because others unthinkingly wait too long for Pink’s chili dogs, causing the line to creep ever longer, almost independently of the quality of the food.
But there’s a more charitable version of this argument that goes something like this: With so many food choices in a large city, we can’t taste them all, and instead have to depend on signals to indicate what the best options are. Our preferences are typically strongly influenced by what others already visibly prefer, and Pink’s line gives a hugely visible message that one could quite reasonably be influenced by. Seeing a line of consumers snaking up La Brea is a more compelling advertisement than some print ad written by the restaurant’s own publicist, since it reflects actual, aggregated preferences. It’s not crazy, and perhaps even reasonable, to at least want to try Pink’s to see whether a hot dog could be good enough to justify an hour-plus wait (though doing so more than once would be harder to explain).
Second, I’ve been assuming that waiting in line is just another cost to be weighed against the appeal of Pink’s hot dogs in a cost/benefit analysis. But perhaps the story is more complicated. It could be that there are nonobvious benefits to being in line. One possibility is that the experience of waiting might make the subjective experience of eating the chili dogs seem better, because any food seems more “earned” after standing along a crowded L.A. street for 1.5 hours. And others might actually find that waiting in line is an experience benefit, not an experience cost. Someone could find that the wait for a Pink’s dog is a classic Los Angeles experience, something that allows people to watch the life of the city blur past, and makes for nostalgic stories to share in the future. (Indeed, one news outlet recently reported that the Pink’s line is a great pick-up spot, apparently because you’re stuck there so long that you have to talk to the people around you just to pass the time.)
Third, if one regards Pink’s as both highly desirable and truly unique, then waiting in the line might make more sense than it initially appears to. After all, a truly unique experience might merit more waiting (and other cost expenditures) as compared to one that’s more readily substitutable. Hence the long lines at Disneyland, for example. It’s not like you can go to the competitor across the street and ride their Matterhorn or see their Captain EO. If you want Disneyland, you have to suck up the wait or skip it altogether. Perhaps Pink’s is in this truly-unique category. (NB: It’s not clear whether Pink’s can be rightly thought of as truly unique. While they have only the one classic location, and while that location requires a long-line-wait for dogs, they have also placed their food on offer at lots of other locations, as their home page indicates.)
Finally, in fairness to Pink’s (and kind of related to the above point), maybe they’re just that good. As I’ve said several times, and as we all already know, preferences (especially preferences for food) are variable and highly subjective. Perhaps the line-waiters know their preferences perfectly well and have concluded that Pink’s chili dogs are so unfathomably delicious that even an hour-plus wait is well justified for them. I’m skeptical of this explanation, but it’s not so completely implausible that it shouldn’t at least be proffered.
Is there a general lesson here? Maybe something along these lines: Restaurants’ success and failure (like films’ success and failure) is starkly divided. A few succeed spectacularly. Most fail. This may be because those few successful restaurants really are that much better than the rest, but I’m skeptical of this. I think it may be more that a few restaurants gain advantages over others for reasons including quality food, effective PR, and good luck, causing customers to flock in droves to them (as true of Pink’s and many other eateries in LA and, I’m sure, other cities) and leaving other establishments to struggle.
What does this mean for the consumer? My conjecture is not that lines are a useless signal of quality. Very popular restaurants may well serve marginally better food. But I also suspect that their massive popularity, evidenced by the queues surrounding Pink’s, is out of all proportion to this difference in quality. Very long lines, then, could be an overly strong signal of merit, so that waiting in them is more costly than the restaurant’s somewhat higher quality warrants.
So if lines really do overstate the quality of the food there, then the wise gourmand might be well served to avoid any place with a long line and pick a B-list place, secure in the conclusion that the gained experience benefits of avoiding lines at the less popular restaurant will usually swamp the marginal costs in terms of slightly less good food. (Just as some commentators recently suggested that S&P’s credit ratings of nations overdetermine public opinion, so that betting against them may be a wise move.) This is, of course, an empirical question that would require some research to answer. But I suspect that it would be the most delicious research ever.