Four Hours for Barbecue: the Psychology of Waiting in Line for Food

Meat worth waiting for. [All Photographs: Naomi Bishop]

Confused, my mind muddled by the 105°F heat of Austin, I collapsed onto the bed of my hotel room. Did I even know myself anymore? "No meat is worth a three-hour wait," I poo-poo'd to friends before leaving on my Texas vacation. And yet I'd waited over four at famed brisket purveyor Franklin Barbecue, and had a good time doing it, too. How was such a thing possible?

"Hungry? Why wait?" ask Snicker's candy commercials. Cronuts, hot dogs, barbecue, oysters, and more are the answer of food lovers around the country. But what compels them (er, me) to do so? Great food? Bragging rights? Boredom?

"Saturdays are like tailgating the Superbowl," said chef-owner Aaron Franklin. Hubris aside, the statement holds true. Tailgates were down and lawn-chair rentals available. A group hosted a birthday party in line toward the front, and there was a beer in nearly everyone's hand. I was among the last in line (the group behind mine was later given a "Last Man Standing" sign) when I arrived just after 10 a.m., and the tiny house of barbecue doesn't even open until 11. By the time my partner-in-crime returned from fetching breakfast tacos, my iced coffee was well on its way to being hot, and Benji, the world's friendliest barbecue employee, had already come from the kitchen to let the back of the line know we had a four-and-a-half hour wait in front of us.

The view from the back of the line.

On the plus side, I had a cold beer in my hand, thanks to the Texas couple behind me who were veterans of the wait. "It's worth it. It's like a religious experience," they said, handing the boys ahead of us—in town from New York for a self-guided barbecue tour—an umbrella to block some of the relentless sun. "I'll just wait until this stops being fun," I told myself. "Then I'll leave and eat the next-best, line-free barbecue." Suffice it to say that by the time I got my meat many hours later, I was still having a good time.

Why was my wait so painless? It wasn't just the numbing effect of cheap, cold beer on a hot day. According to M.I.T. professor Richard Larson, ("the world's foremost expert on lines," says the New York Times) "Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself." In other words: there's more to the wait than how much time it takes to get to the front.

The view from the front of the line.

The central tenet of the "Psychology of Waiting in Lines," by David Maister, a business consultant and former professor at Harvard Business School, backs that claim, stating that the amount of time in a line has little to do with how long a wait feels. Reading through his list of factors that affect wait times is a little like peeking into Aaron Franklin's playbook on how to keep the hoards of barbecue lovers happy.

In meeting the encouraging couple with the beer and the boys from New York, I'd already fulfilled one of those factors: group waits feel shorter than solo waits. Dominique Ansel (he of the famed Cronut lines) also mentions the camaraderie of line waiting as a highlight of having a line. He points to "missed connections"-style posts on the bakery's Facebook page for people who met waiting in line, and adds that he's even talked to couples who first met in the line for his pastries.

Benji (left, red sweatband), chats with customers in line.

When Benji, all smiles despite the brutal heat, came out to tell us how long the wait would be, he helped with two more of Maister's factors. As disheartening as it was to learn that our wait would be over four hours, finite waits go more quickly than uncertain ones by eliminating the feeling of endlessness that comes with the unknown quantity. When he told us we wouldn't eat until 2:30PM, he followed it immediately with "but you will get food." That assurance also removed any anxiety (anxiety makes waits seem longer) that we might not get barbecue. Ansel takes a similar tack, giving everyone in line a number so they know for sure whether or not they'll get a Cronut that day.

Samples to tide hungry customers over until their turn at the front.

Another Franklin employee came through the line shortly after opening and took a guesstimate order of how much meat everyone wanted, and placed that "Last Man Standing" sign at the end of the line. Getting to give that pre-order felt a little bit like the whole adventure was getting started—another of Maister's psychological factors on line waiting.

Throughout the wait, Franklin employees were walking up and down the line, selling sodas and making sure that people were doing well and having a good time. They joked with line-waiters and handed out samples of sausages. Maister's clinical way of summing up the psychological effect this has on perception of wait times is that occupied time goes more quickly than unoccupied time. In layman's terms, time flies when you're having fun. The samples they offered only heightened my excitement for getting to the full meal. Ansel says that he, too, has found samples keep people happy: "We chat with people and hand out complimentary madeleines."

One by one, each customer in front of us was helped in the order that they arrived. Fairness of the line is important to time perception, say both Larson and Maister. This includes being helped in order of arrival (as opposed to, say, a grocery checkout, where you can see people who got in a different line after you get helped first), as well as the quality of the product or service that one is waiting for being commensurate with the length of the wait. When I got to the front of the line, I put in my order. Brisket, pork ribs, sausages. The boys from New York got even more, adding turkey, pulled pork, and a few sides to their order. The Texan couple showed their expertise here, ordering the tipsy Texan sandwich: chopped brisket, sausage, pickles, and coleslaw on a soft bun.

Our table towered with meat, our eyes taking in every square inch of barbecue in the final pause before we all dug in. The obvious question after eating Franklin's brisket is "Was it worth it?" But in that moment before shoveling meat by the tray-full into my mouth, I already knew the answer. The fact that it was just as good (the best) as everyone said was simply the icing on the cake.

What happens if you get there too late.