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Cut the line? There’s an app for that

Even kindergartners know the rule: You can’t cut the line.

But now, thanks to technology that lets restaurant and coffee shop customers easily order ahead for pickup, a growing segment of the population is demanding frontsies.

They waltz into Starbucks — or Dunkin’ Donuts or Sweetgreen or Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, or any number of places — and head straight to the designated pickup spot. Barely glancing up from their smartphones, they grab their goodies and go, while the customers standing in line inch along, sometimes bitterly, even though they, too, could pull the same move at no cost.

“It’s not fair,” said Noni Brown, an administrative assistant at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, as she waited five minutes — in 2017, a lifetime — for a bacon-and-cheddar sandwich and a Frappuccino at a Starbucks in the Longwood Medical Area.


She railed against the invisible line of mobile orders ahead of her, orders she couldn’t figure into her calculation of whether it was worth her time to wait.

“It’s deceptive,” she said.

Before we go any further, let’s state the obvious. Ordering ahead for pickup is not a new concept. People have been doing it since there were pizzerias and rotary phones.

But apps and websites have made the transaction as frictionless as summoning an Uber, and along the way, turned what was once a brief conversation between human beings — “Gimme a large pepperoni and two Cokes.” “Ten minutes.” — into an industry.

The enormity of the trend can be measured several ways. First, there’s the money. Mobile order-ahead sales are expected to reach $38 billion by 2020, according to Business Insider.

Then there are the rewards. Because the order-ahead customers are the customers everyone wants — they’re loyal; they share their e-mail addresses; they spend more — restaurants shower them with frequent-buyer treats such as free food and drinks.


At Taco Bell, for instance, mobile order totals are, on average, 30 percent higher than in-store orders, according to Business Insider.

Consider the companies getting into the order-ahead game. They range from McDonald’s to the local vegetarian chain Clover Food Lab to Spicy Salaa, a South Indian food truck that parks around Boston.

At Starbucks, ordering ahead has become so popular that it’s causing problems, a story told in headlines: “Smartphone orders clog Starbucks shops, forcing coffee giant to revamp store designs” (Geek-Wire, Jan. 26). “Starbucks gives baristas new tablets to manage congestion caused by mobile order-ahead service” (Geek-Wire, April 27).

The trend has worked its way so far into the culture it’s raising etiquette issues that would make for a delicious “Seinfeld” episode. As in: Is it morally wrong to place a mobile order from inside a restaurant if the line is moving at a glacial pace? Yes, people do this, and yes, others resent them for it.

(Here’s how it would play out on “Seinfeld”: George goes to Starbucks, gets impatient, and surreptitiously orders through the app to skip the line. A child who hates him from an earlier interaction sees what he’s up to and alerts the barista. The line turns on George.)

App rage has not yet made headlines, but in a time-stressed culture, being kept waiting for your coffee or lunch is no minor matter. Sally Sharp Lehman, a management consultant, stopped eating at a quick-service salad restaurant near her Back Bay office because the restaurant couldn’t get its order-ahead service running smoothly.


“The line of people waiting for pickup would be longer than the line for the people who just showed up,” she said, still annoyed at the memory of watching the walk-ins get their salads before she did.

Kitchen staffers delivered food orders to the counter at Flour Bakery in Boston, an establishment that takes online orders as well as in-person ones. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

And — need it be said? — the resentment flows the other way, too. Some people who’ve been waiting in line are frustrated by the orders coming in through cyberspace, often convinced baristas are making mobile-order drinks first.

A Starbucks spokeswoman disputed that claim. “Orders are made in the order they’re received whether they’re mobile or in-person,” Maggie Jantzen wrote in an e-mail. “There is not a separate production queue.”

In April, Starbucks opened a mobile-order-only location in its Seattle headquarters but says it’s too early to say if more will follow.

If there’s a downside to mobile ordering, it may be to our health, not our manners. Researchers who studied more than 160,000 orders at a North Carolina pizza chain found the online orders contained an average of about 100 calories more than the phone orders.

Why? “No one’s judging you,” researcher Ryan McDevitt, an assistant professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, said in a statement.

And once you experience the ease of ordering ahead, it’s hard to go back. “If I can’t order online I won’t go to a place,” said Aditya Chetia, a Northeastern University student working at John Hancock, as he swooped in for his roasted lamb sandwich at Flour in the Back Bay.


“I feel bad for the people waiting,” he said.

Still, as more people place mobile orders, some fear something is being lost, the chance for an unexpected conversation, a moment to zone out.

“I like the mental break,” said Molly Healy, 28, an administrative assistant at Boston Children’s Hospital. She had ordered a Passion Tango Tea, in person, at a Starbucks.

“I’m old-school.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.