Deviant Dining: Bringing in Outside Food & Drink to a Restaurant

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on April 4, 2013.

Is it ok to bring outside food and drinks into a restaurant? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains under what circumstances this behavior is considered deviant. 

To-Go Coffee Cup

Sociologists spend a lot of time studying deviant behavior. What might surprise you about deviant behavior is that it is not necessarily behavior that is harmful or criminal, but is simply any violation of norms. This means that deviant behavior can range in seriousness from less harmful to more harmful.

Deviance is also culturally specific. This means that what might be considered deviant in the United States, might not be deviant in another part of the world. Let’s consider deviant behavior in the context of restaurant dining.

During my last two restaurant dining experiences, I witnessed deviant dining: restaurant patrons bringing in outside food or drink to consume in the restaurant.

Both incidents involved a family of three: mom, dad, and child.

In the first incident, mom had brought in a plastic cup and poured her son some Sprite from a can she brought into the restaurant. I heard the can open, which brough my attention to what was going on at the booth across from us. She poured the soda below the table and then hid the can behind the promotional material on the table. They left the can at the table when they left the restaurant for the servers to dispose. The son was probably seven or eight-years-old. I mention this because age matters in terms of whether or not this might be considered deviant.

I am guilty of bringing in outside food for a child. I would bring in outside food when dining with my daughter who was transitioning from breastmilk to solid food. When she was one, the only restaurant food that struck her interest were the lemons in our glasses of water. Once she moved onto grilled cheese and pasta, she eats off the menu. Occasionally, we have to get creative with what menu item she will eat, but we always figure something out off the restaurant’s menu.

I think most restaurants are ok with this, but it never dawned on me to ask. Let’s be real, it is unreasonable to expect a restaurant to buy chicken nuggets for an infant transitioning to solids. I also am sure to tip to account for the work the server still has to do with when outside food is brought into a restaurant for a child. In other words, outside food brought in for a child might not be considered deviant depending on the age of the child and whether or not the customer accounts for this in her or his tip. 

In the second incident, the patron was a bit more brazen. This time dad brought in food he purchased at the restaurant next door for his consumption. Using my sociological imagination, I can understand a scenario involving bringing in outside food for an older child or an adult if there is a food allegery concern or even a behavioral concern that is controled by the presence of outside food. Based on the food this grown man brought in and the restaurant we were in, however, I doubt either of these were concerns.

Some may argue that bringing in outside food and drink is always deviant. Consider though that people with food allergies or very young children may want to be able to dine with their friends and family in a restaurant. They may be traveling and have few other dining options. Parents may wish to socialize their children into normative restaurant behavior from a young age.

Some may wonder why bringing in outside food is ever considered deviant, especially if other people at your table are paying customers. For a restaurant, deviant diners may be seen as better than no diners. Here are a couple of reasons why this behavior is typically considered deviant:

  • You are taking the seat of a paying customer. In both incidents, the restaurants were very busy. Neither had waiting customers, but they were very close to having waiting customers. Either way, the restaurant workers were very busy and did not need additional work during the rush.
  • Servers still have to clean up after you, without you providing any sale to them.Even if you throw away everything you brought in, the restaurant workers still have to wipe down your table and take the trash out of the restaurant. You are using services that you did not pay for.

In some situations, it is perfectly acceptable to bring in outside food and drink. For example, Major League Baseball stadiums typically allow you to bring in outside food and drink even though they also sell these items. Some concert venues allow outside food and drink. Restaurants may allow customers to bring in their own bottle of wine or birthday cake, but they typically will charge a corkage fee or a cake serving fee. In other words, there are norms around bringing in outside food or drink. The baseball stadium may allow outside beverages, but might not allow alcohol or glass bottles. The restaurant may charge an additional fee for bringing in a bottle of wine. With deviant behavior, social context matters. Though usually deviant, bringing in outside food and drink is not always deviant behavior.  

Dig Deeper:

  1. How do sociologists define deviant behavior? Give an example (not in this post) of deviant behavior. Explain why it is deviant.
  2. The author explains that under most circumstances, bringing in outside food or drink to a restaurant is deviant behavior. Think of other examples of deviant behavior associated with eating in restaurants (for example, how do you order food or tip in a restaurant?). Explain.
  3. The author considers bringing food or drink into a restaurant for a very young child as typically understood as not deviant. Do you agree? Why or why not? Think of other examples of behaviors that are considered deviant for adults and older children, but not for very young children.
  4. Visit the following post, “Bring Your Own? Please Don’t” at I’m Your Server, Not Your Servant. Read the post and some of the comments (at least ten). Under what circumstances do servers agree it is ok to bring your own food or drink to a restaurant? Read a few more comments. Is there agreement among the commenters?