A recent Sunday morning in front of Tartine Bakery

Living in a popular neighborhood, in the middle of a popular city, is a lifestyle choice that can make a person sneaky. For those who don’t like to wait, it is possible to live in a shadow Mission, getting an Its-It from the freezer of a convenience store instead of standing for half an hour in line at the Bi Rite Creamery, and only visiting certain spots during the brief hours when they’re not busy — Tartine before 8 a.m., bars on Sunday through Wednesday, Papalote only at 2 in the afternoon, Valencia Pizza & Pasta when you need a table for six on a Friday night. Brunch never ever ever. Or only if you make sure to eat brunch first.

But what if it didn’t have to be this way? Mission Loc@l recently met a man, locked in by a non-disclosure agreement, who is developing an app to help reduce line-waiting. He told us that he gave up on testing it in the Mission because the businesses he approached said they liked their lines. Their lines were, in fact, their advertising.

“The line is how I got my job here,” says one Tartine employee, who also requests anonymity. “I was riding the bus by, saw the line. I thought, What’s happening there?”

Tartine does not even have a sign outside. When people give directions to it, those directions tend to consist of: “Go to 18th and Guerrero. Look for the line.”

Pago, another app with line-waiting implications, is currently being tested in Mountain View, even though the company developing it is headquartered in San Francisco and its director, Tyler Dorman, lives near Dolores Park.

Pago allows customers to order and pay for food via smartphone, limiting their business interactions to a bag handed to them across a counter or a plate set down on their table. “I had to wonder if there was some meaning lost in the exercise of waiting in line, looking at the menu on the wall and verbalizing my desired meal,” writes an early adopter of Pago in an article in the Mountain View Valley Voice. “Probably not.”

Over the next year, Pago will roll out in seven major U.S. cities. “We understand that a lot of places in the Mission like their lines,” Dorman says. Behind him, a line of people waits to approach the counter at Philz. None of them look especially happy, but it’s early yet.

Instead, says Dorman, it’s a way of understanding lines. For the customer, the incentive may be skipping a line, but for the merchant, it’s acquiring the sort of detailed information about an individual’s ordering habits that would normally only reside in the mind of an extremely experienced counterperson — the sort of person who starts making your drink when you walk in the door, or who charges you less because you’re a regular.

“Who is in that line?” says Dorman, warming to the topic. “How do we invite them to come back? Maybe we’re slow and they’re sitting in Dolores Park right now, and if I pushed a message using Pago to them right now offering them a discount on a double scoop, they would come over. Phil has — what, seven locations. Sometimes he’s here saying hello and talking to customers. With this app he could be doing that at every location.”

Humans are more likely to keep waiting in a line if they feel someone is paying attention to them — one reason why Bi Rite’s deli begins to pass out free samples once the line inside the store stretches past the sausage case, and why businesses like Four Barrel will send people down the line writing down orders when the line stretches out the door, and hires baristas savvy enough to start making drinks for regulars that are done by the time they reach the counter.

People are also more likely to wait in line for things they think are going to be nice. For that reason, humans will wait longer to get into an expensive restaurant than a cheap one, and wait longer for roller coasters and croissants than to buy a handful of nails at the hardware store. People are also more likely to wait in line if they feel that they have options — grocery stores have express lanes because a person buying just a few items will take one look at a long line and walk out.

According to the comprehensive and cynical line-waiting survey “Looking Back: Exploring the Psychology of Queuing and the Effect of the Number of People Behind,” written by Rongrong Zhou and Dilip Soman and published in the Journal of Consumer Research, people also report stress in grocery store lines because they encourage comparison between self and other — gauging one’s own progress through the line in comparison to all other lines one might have chosen.

Most misery-inducing are the lines that can’t be avoided — perhaps one reason why, before package pickup was switched to the Bryant Street post office, the line at the 23rd and Van Ness post office to pick up packages sent by well-meaning relatives who still believe in the United States postal system was a strong contender for the most excruciating wait within the 94110 zip code.

When researchers ask people how long they’ve waited in line, they almost always guess they’ve been there longer than they actually have. But they also prefer waiting in one line to the tension of having to choose between several, partly because a single line ensures that no one group pulls ahead. “As unpleasant as a wait might be,” writes Zhou et al., “the act of socially comparing oneself with people behind who are not quite as fortunate could be somewhat of a comfort.”

Lines can be seen as a sign of social breakdown — the reason people in some parts of Europe line up along a wall, rather than perpendicular to it, is that it is a relic of the Soviet era, when lines lasted for hours and people used the wall to lean against and rest.

At least until you start paying people to stand in line for you. Paid line-waiting is an anachronism — online ticketing, which is in some ways another form of paid line-waiting, undid a lot of the paid line-waiting subsidized by concert ticket scalpers and early-model iPhone adopters. But the paid line-waiters of Capitol Hill still wait as lomg as 30 hours to score good seats for congresspeople in need of a high-status spot in the Capitol.

But lines can also look like egalitarianism. “A line conceives of people as citizens, presumed equal, each with an identical 24 hours a day to spread among the lines around them,” writes Anand Girharadas in an article lamenting, among other things, the appearance in the villages of developing countries of “key-locked portable toilets to avoid the morning queue.” Line culture, Girharadas says, presumes that “in line at least, we are no better than anybody else.”

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. Tartine? I’ve gone several times intermittently, bought and consumed pastries from it, and scratched my head. Why does this pastry have no flavor? I don’t get it. The bread is good, but my dentist asked what are all these scratches on your gums? From Tartine’s bread crust, doc. I will probably once again give in to my sweet tooth and try Tartine, but it seems a huge (expensive) waste of money. I don’t understand the lines. Before 8 am? Very funny.

  2. The oddest thing about the people waiting in line at Bi-Rite creamery is that there is rarely a line at the soft-serve window. And, it is really good soft-serve ice cream.

    Avoiding lines for brunch is easy, just go before noon.

  3. I personally don’t understand the line culture in San francisc. Make no mistake, there is a culture around it. People are happy to wait and wait for one is basically a trivial pleasure easily reached elsewhere with minor difference in experience except for the line itself.

    I mean waiting 30 minutes for a scoop of ice cream doesn’t really make sense for anyone. Think about your hourly salary, and now vale your free time accordingly. If you spend 30 minutes in line and make $20/hour that scoop at BI RITE just cost you $15 ($10 plus the $5 for the ice cream)… Time does have a value.

    Personally I just don’t do lines in San Francisco. I love Tartine will stop on there on my ride to/from the park exclusively when there is no line. There is no restaurant in this city better enough than the rest of the amazing restaurants in this city to justify waisting my life in a line.

    1. I wouldn’t be getting paid (my hourly wage) if I weren’t waiting in line either. Not really following your logic. Time does not equal money in this case. It’s my day off, I will not be getting paid regardless of what I do. I’m not a proponent of lines, or Bi-Rite, just miffed by your argument.

      1. My argument is that your time is valuable and is worth whatever your hourly wage is…. This is basically the opportunity cost argument from economics.