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Becky's Diner in Portland, Maine. (Photo: Kevin J. O'Toole for the New Jersey Globe).

The O’Toole Chronicles: Countertop Dining and Focus Groups

By Kevin O'Toole, August 09 2022 12:01 am

After an impromptu weekend trip to Portland, Maine, I couldn’t help but notice how much emphasis restaurants place on countertop dining there. Many of the restaurants in Portland, top tier to hole-in-the-wall, encourage patrons to just walk in and grab a seat at the counter.

One such place was Becky’s. Far away from the fancy end of the spectrum, this typical “Jersey-style” diner is one of the most popular breakfast places in all of downtown. The trick to getting served breakfast before noon is sit at the counter.

In this Covid world we continue to operate in, we find ourselves more cut off and away from real relationships. We now communicate, socialize, and commit to business via Zoom and most of us (non-millennials) can feel the human touch continuing to fade to obscurity. The last thing most people want to do is elbow up to a stranger and order food. Perhaps countertop dining is what the world needs.

While in Portland, we had four different meals at a countertop and came away with a renewed sense that people want to come out of their bunkered life and get back to being normal.

Most countertop encounters usually start with a pro-forma hello to someone sitting nearby. There is generally a politeness and small talk found between fellow diners. The back and forth sometimes leads to sports and politics or something about life. This is exactly what happens at Becky’s.

I heard from a tradesman who couldn’t find an apprentice, a waitress (originally from Philadelphia) who couldn’t get her sons from continuing to root for the Eagles – she loves the Patriots.

Now, before you think I’ve become a food critic for the New Jersey Globe, I’m getting to the cross-section with politics.

As Labor Day approaches, ballots get ready to go out, and the mad dash to Election Day begins, invariably campaigns are talking about the issues that will cut the most with voters. Is it inflation? Roe v Wade? Guns? Gas prices? Lack of formula on the shelves? Before you listen to your cadre of advisors on what they think people care about or commission a poll (sorry consultants out there), walk into a diner or bar and talk to people. Listen to what they are saying. Listen to what is important to them. Chances are you’ll get a lot more valuable information from this than listening to your bubble. It’ll be cheaper too (once again, sorry campaign consultants).

Bonus note: If you’re ever around Portland, Maine, take the ferry to Peaks Island. The roughly 800 full-time residents are far ahead of most in blending their community and preserving the majestic landscape around them.

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