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.

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35 Responses

  1. Bruce Boyden says:

    Perhaps Yogi Berra was talking about Pink’s when he said “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

  2. Mike Madison says:

    Yogi Berra may have been as good an economist as he was a catcher: “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

  3. David Fagundes says:

    Wow, great minds not only really do think alike, they do so at almost exactly the same time!

  4. wesleyan says:

    It’s called “word of mouth” … that’s why any restaurant worth its salt really doesn’t need to advertise. Your treatise is so long and windy! Lighten up.

  5. David Fagundes says:

    “Lighten up,” eh? You know, Wesleyan, substantive criticism is always welcome, but comments about my weight are just ad hominem, and really uncalled-for.

  6. Mike D. says:

    Dave, there’s a question you don’t ask here that may help you with the ones you do address: why doesn’t Pink raise its prices? Demand clearly exceeds supply here, so classical economics says the remedy is a price hike. Higher prices deter those with less desire to eat a Pink’s hot dog (or at least those with fewer resources to spend on one). End result: those with greater financial resources get the hot dogs without spending their time resources. Pink’s ends up with higher profits and perhaps more satisfied customers (since they didn’t have to wait 1.5 hours).

    One possible reason Pink’s doesn’t do this is that it sells hot dogs. Raising prices would make Pink’s seem less like a friendly neighborhood joint and more like an overpriced gourmet restaurant. Eating at Pink’s would then make a very different statement than it does now. Now, it says, “I’m a regular guy/gal who really knows his/her street food, and I value good food so much that I’m willing to wait in ridiculous lines for it.” In short, I’m cool. If Pink’s raised its prices enough to cut the lines, the message of eating at Pink’s would be more like, “I’m such a snot, I pay ridiculous prices even for regular food like chili dogs, just because the place has a reputation.” So why do people wait in line at Pink’s? It says something they like about who they are. No wonder it’s a great pick-up spot!

  7. wesleyan says:

    Sorry, David … didn’t mean to sound so non-subjectively snarky. Thanks for provoking some thought and discussion on a sloooooooow Wednesday. Onward to Pink’s!

  8. A.J. Sutter says:

    As my grandfather used to say (and not in a culinary context), “Af shpitzn tzinge ligt di gantze velt”: “On the tip of your tongue lies the whole world.” Why not just ASK people who’re standing in line. E.g., it might turn out that most of them are tourists who visit Pink’s just once in their lives, and are recommended to do so by some popular guidebooks.

  9. David Fagundes says:

    Mike: Great thoughts, thanks. I like the idea of looking at the cost of a Pink’s hot dog in those terms. The price is actually the dollar cost of the hot dog plus the experience cost of the wait. Longer waits would certainly drive down prices, so I think it has to be right that higher prices would drive down wait times.

    Two related observations. First, while for consumers dollar cost and experience-wait cost may be interchangeable, this may not be the case for Pink’s. They may gain more from cheaper dogs and a longer line because the long line creates buzz and is basically a free, uniquely credible advertisement. If they raised dollar costs, their dogs might be priced correctly with the shorter wait, but the mystique would be gone. This might help explain why Pink’s doesn’t raise the prices of its dogs–the line is as good for them as it is annoying for consumers.

    Second, does waiting in Pink’s line connote “I’m cool”? Not so sure about this one. I think it connotes, “I’m a tourist,” or “I’m a sucker who follows the crowd,” and I know plenty of other Angelenos who think this. But tastes on this front are clearly idiosyncratic, and some people might well think that waiting in a long, public line to be part of a common phenomenon is indeed cool. Cf. also folks who wait in long lines to get into glitzy clubs. There must be some appeal to that activity, since it happens so much, but I certainly don’t relate to it personally.

    AJ: Yes, I’m sure that would be useful. Hence my observation that more empirical observations are needed to resolve the paradox. This doesn’t undermine the value of inquiring at the level of theory, though, I think. In my view, the two complement each other.

  10. Ken Rhodes says:

    So David — Have you sent this entire post to Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution?

  11. David Fagundes says:

    Ken: I have not, but I will. Thanks for the suggestion.

  12. Chris says:

    I’ve never understood the long line at Pink’s. Maybe because I was able to try their chili dog once when there wasn’t a line. Not horrible but nothing that I would ever wait more than an hour to try again.

  13. Bart says:

    Most of the people in line are tourists, not regulars. No one hip eats at Pinks. This post is classic beanplating.

  14. Shag from Brookline says:

    “This post is classic beanplating.”

    What a great business idea – hot dogs and beans! That’s something I could yodel for.

    Let’s hope this doesn’t result in photos of GOP Presidential candidates eating a “Pink’s Famous” similar to corn dogs in Iowa.

  15. RubyJackson says:

    The line at Pink’s in part is so long because of their system of preparing dogs. Instead of a streamlined, assembly-line type set up, they have each server run all over the kitchen putting the various condiments on each dog. Instead, they should have the dog go down the line, a la Subway Sandwiches.

    Secondly, and this is important, the line is so long because there are actually THREE lines. One to order, one to pay, and one to pick up.

    I truly believe their model of inefficiency is deliberate, in order to create a long line, and the mystique you mention above.

    Finally, it’s my opinion their dogs suck.

  16. Justin says:

    I’ve never been to Pinks, but I waited an hour for a hot dog at Hot Doug’s in Chicago with a very hip Chicagoan last week. It was worth it, partly because we chatted happily the whole time and enjoyed the experience, but also because the hot dog and fries were spectacular. I’d definitely do it again.

    I’m not sure what’s so shocking about a person waiting an hour for a hot dog. Four hours wait would be sufficient to make this post make sense, but most meals take over an hour to conclude. An hour wait for an immediate hot dog doesn’t lead to a meal experience that is significantly longer than the norm. I used to work in a popular chain restaurant that would regularly attain waits of three hours for a table on weekend nights. THAT’s true lunacy.

  17. Matt says:

    Several of the comments have made important points about the lines, I think, but I just can’t go any longer w/o saying something about the film reference. Mulholland Drive is not even one of David Lynch’s best films. (I suspect it’s actually an elaborate, though not very funny, joke.) It’s certainly not one of the best films of all time. There is nothing more to say about that subject.

  18. David Fagundes says:

    @Bart: “Classic beanplating” is the most delicious compliment a post of mine has ever received. Thanks!

    @Ruby: Agreed. Pink’s gains nothing by being more efficient in delivering dogs, so long as people are willing to wait hours for them. Indeed, efficiency in dog-creation might actually be a loss for them given the fame/mystique the line creates.

    @Justin, Matt: I can accept that some might he happy to wait an hour for a hot dog, or might not appreciate Mulholland Dr. De gustibus, as the man says, non disputandum est.

  19. Luanq says:

    Pinks is not good. Pinks lines are long because they are filled with tourists, or people who dont go there very often, but want the nostalgia of going there. most LA locals do not frequent, because there are better choices available. People wait hours to say they ate there, not because the dogs are amazing.

  20. John Peale says:

    Pink’s is the most over-rated hot dog stand in the world. The food is terrible.

  21. Patti Reis says:

    Hmm. Maybe the owners were unusually prescient and decided to take their sweet time right from the beginning, filling the orders as slowly as they pleased, thus creating a line. They had a line right from the start, so everyone just assumed they had the best hot dogs EVER, and it hasn’t slowed down since. Wouldn’t it be funny to find out they’re really just serving Farmer John’s?

  22. Paul says:

    Pinks creates a long line on purpose. They could raise their prices and eliminate the line while keeping their current revenue level, but then they would just be another gourmet overpriced hot dog stand. Sort of like Chipotle or Sharky’s instead of the local burrito joint. Or Umami or The Counter instead of the anonymous hamburger hut.

  23. EmmaPeel007 says:

    I used to love to go to Pink’s after the bars closed to get “try and avert a hangover” food in my stomach before I went home to pass out. After I became a responsible parent my 2:30AM Pink’s visits fell by the wayside.

    A few years later I remember driving by Pink’s with my husband and daughter. She was about three or four at the time. She saw the long line and asked, “What’s that place?”

    We told her it was Pink’s and it was a hot dog stand.

    Her response?

    “What’s so important about hot dogs?”

    Pinks was then forever to be in my mind be The Important Hot Dog Stand.

    That’s all I got.

  24. Ron says:

    When I first moved to L.A. several years ago I heard all the hype and actually went to Pinks with a friend. We waited in that line and ate the nastiest hot dogs ever. I’ll never go again. I believe that every tourist feels they must go there because they think all the movie stars in town eat there often. Wrong! Bad food, somehow they receive good PR. The Pink family gets rich, our tourists go home with upset bloated stomachs.

  25. DoubleDubb says:

    I can’t believe I read this entire article & all of the comments. That was valuable waiting-in-line-for-a-chili-dog time. Actually the Spicy Chicago Polish Dog w/ chili, cheese, mustard and relish. OMFG. Even if I didn’t have fond childhood memories of eating at Pink’s w/ my grandfather I’m sure I’d still be grabbing the occasional dog there. Wait, I still AM grabbing the occasional dog there.

  26. Justin Levine (no relation to other Justins here) says:

    “[O]thers 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…”

    That is the theory I would sign on to.

    Waiting in line at Pinks has somehow evolved into one of the increasingly rare social and egalitarian experiences that one can have in Los Angeles. People from all walks of life stand in line at Pinks, and you will find them more sociable than most other times when you run into strangers on the street in this city – perhaps because everyone knows they are in the same boat and know that waiting is just part of the ‘experience’.

    If I recall correctly, Bruce Willis proposed to Demi Moore while on line at Pinks. Big businessmen eat there, as do the nearly-homeless people who can scrape together enough for a Pinks dog. They proudly display photos of women in elegant formal dresses on line for a Pinks dog, while others will tell you stories of the guy in rags who pulled up to curb in his beat-up car, opened the door, and puked his guts out on the sidewalk right in front of those standing in line for their food.

    Whatever you might think of the quality of their food, its hard to imagine Los Angeles without Pinks.

  27. pixlink says:

    Twelve years ago I used to work nearby and ate at Pinks for the chili burgers, not the dogs, but then there was never a line more than three people at any time. Perhaps they could raise their prices at peak times but give the increase to charity, there’s plenty of education or health causes in that area. Given the fat content of their food, perhaps it could fund a free cardiac health clinic.

  28. I have been eating on and off at Pinks for 25 years. I refuse to wait in a long line so I go there when I have jobs scheduled in that area. I eat there between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m., after that forget it. I love their chili and that is the number one reason that I eat there. I think the long lines started when the tourists made it part of their destination. Must be listed in the guide books or something. Pinks can also be found at the L.A. County fair as well as the Greek theater.

  29. Ray Escamilla says:

    Standing in line at Pink’s on any given evening is an experience in of itself. If you show up with any other expectation than to stand in line and have fun, and happen to enjoy some hot dogs afterwards, then the current joy of Pink’s is lost on you. Show up with an idea of fun things to do with lots of strangers (or open to suchs ideas) and you’ll have a fun night. Last trip, I took a few colored markers and my group of friends and I drew wrestling masks on our thumbs and thumb wrestled. Soon a good portion of the line had painted thumbs and were “wrestling” complete strangers. Sometimes, one can do things purely for the fun of it, even without explanation.

  30. Colin Wexler says:

    Well, don’t worry. Now that Papaya King has opened in Hollywood Pinks should be out of business any day now. At least they won’t have lines now that a good hot dog is finally available in the area.

  31. Rickinla says:

    Some people just like the sound of their own writing.

  32. David Fagundes says:

    @various: So it appears that waiting in line at Pink’s is both a classic LA experience well worth the trouble, as well as a total waste of time that’s only for tourists and rubes. Thank heavens we’ve finally reached a consensus.

    @Rickinla: I resent the suggestion that I just like the sound of my own writing. Not so! I just _love_ the sound of my own writing.

  33. Ambrose Smith says:

    Lots of snobs here dissing Pinks. I guess you never had the Guadalara Dog with guacamole or the spicy Chicago dog. If you are in a hurry and have a club to go to with your Red Bull then skip Pinks. If you want to people watch, eat at a place that has a great history and have a good dog and a root beer then head to Pinks. I go once every couple of months and I avoid the peak hours. I suggest the writer visit during these hours. My brother lives out of town but he eats at Pink’s everytime he drives in to L.A. Long live Pink’s.

  34. Elmo Lapato says:

    As a 20+ year resident of L.A., I don’t quite get what makes Pink’s such an institution, because they’re not really that unique. But those weenies you get from a cart downtown… the ones wrapped in bacon and topped with grilled onions, peppers, and salsa? THOSE are worth being an L.A. institution.

  35. Chris Richardson says:

    This reminds me of an article on patterns in horse racing wagers, which are almost completely market driven. The general research is that longshots are overvalued. But hitting a long-shot at the racetrack has non-economic benefits: you can tell your friends an exciting story…