Party of 4, Your Beeper's Ready : Dining: A pair of Southland restaurants is handing out pocket pagers so customers can shop while they wait for their tables.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When customers arrive at a couple of crowded restaurants in Newport Beach and Century City, they're handed more than excuses these days about the hourlong wait for tables.

They're also handed pocket pagers.

The new Cheesecake Factory restaurant at the chi-chi Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach has purchased 80 high-tech pagers that allow customers to shop while they wait. And at Houston's in Century City, about 60 pagers are available to guests. Instead of annoying beeps, the hand-size devices--which can be attached to belts--vibrate when tables are ready.

"It's very '90s," said Linda Candioty, vice president at Calabasas-based Cheesecake Factory Inc., which is considering passing out pagers at some of its other locations. "Most people put the pagers on their belts and think they look really cool."

Restaurants in New York, Texas, Florida and Washington also began testing the concept of pocket pagers last year. Beepers are far quieter than most restaurant public address systems. And customers who don't want to wait for their tables in often-smoky restaurant lounges now have the option of leaving without missing out on their seats.

As a marketing tool, a pocket pager could certainly help a restaurant stand out from the other 60,000 restaurants in California, said Stanley Kyker, executive vice president of the California Restaurant Assn. "But will it get people to come back and eat there a second time? I doubt it."

At least one industry consultant believes that restaurant pagers could be the wave of the future. "There's nothing people hate more than waiting for tables at restaurants," said Jack Bernstein, president of the Manhattan Beach-based consulting firm Restaurant Marketing Associates. "I don't go to some restaurants myself for that very reason."

Pocket pagers, which first gained popularity among doctors and corporate executives, have quickly filtered down to the masses. Some parents distribute beepers to their children--or baby-sitters--in order to stay in contact with them. And police say drug dealers have become notorious carriers of pocket pagers, giving school officials reason to frown upon them.

At the Cheesecake Factory, some customers have been confused by the vibrating pagers. One man who had forgotten about the device attached to his belt panicked because he thought his pacemaker was kicking in, Candioty said. Another guest accidentally walked off with the restaurant beeper, leaving his personal pager in its place.

Indeed, many customers seem to like the vibrating pagers a bit too much.

Since Houston's started handing out the $80 pagers about six months ago, the restaurant has lost about 50 of them, assistant manager Cara Hennessy said. The beepers might look impressive, but their frequencies are limited so they are of no use to customers who steal them. For those who take them inadvertently, the restaurant has stuck its return address on each beeper.

Both Houston's and Cheesecake Factory refuse to ask customers for credit cards or driver's licenses before giving them the pagers.

"It would imply mistrust--and leave a bad impression upon our guest," said Houston's Hennessy.

Of course, there are restaurants where beepers wouldn't fit in. Take Chasen's, for example, the 60-year-old Los Angeles eatery that caters to the elite--and where reservations are mandatory.

"We don't keep people waiting for tables, so why would we need pagers?" asked Ron Clint, manager. "We're a little old-fashioned. And that's the way we prefer to remain."

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