It's a phenomenon across America, but one that was born in and reaches its apotheosis in New York City — restaurant delivery menus littering apartment lobbies, stuffed through mail slots, wedged into door cracks, stuck behind doorknobs, and even placed under windshield wipers.
If you're a New Yorker, it has happened to you too many times to count: You're at home (sometimes in the office) and you hear it... paper being slipped between the floor and the underside of the door. THHWIKK. Sometimes the slipper does it quickly ("I have many THHWIKKs to peform today!" the sound seems to say). Sometimes the slipper is more melancholy; the sound almost a sigh. Sometimes he faces resistance — a difficult door, a thin slot, and so he sends through a bent menu.
Who started this anyway? Many attribute the origins of the paper delivery menu advertising campaign to Misa Chang, the restaurateur behind the wildly successful Upper West Side restaurant Empire Szechuan. "I'm first at that," The New York Times reported Chang as confessing unapologetically in an article in 1994 about the strategy of papering the neighborhood with the menu of the restaurant she launched in 1976. The practice contributed to its success and repeated expansions beyond Uptown — "an innovation in those days that haunts the West Side now," The Times added.
So there was a time when this practice was innovative, and maybe if temporarily intrusive, it was perhaps still occasionally a welcome sound. But now? In the age of apps, environmental awareness, and online presence, do these menus still have a purpose? Are they useful to restaurateurs? To customers? Or is it finally time to co-opt those "No flier" signs on apartment building doors and post them outside your own apartment? Is the end of the restaurant delivery flier nigh?
A few years ago, Brooklyn councilman Simcha Felder proposed legislation that would make it illegal to distribute menus to homes and apartment buildings displaying a sign indicating promotional materials as unwelcome. Apparently, the Sanitation Department fined Felder's mother $100 for circulars left on her stoop (no better way to get a politician to try to change things than when something affects them, huh?). The ban failed, much to the joy, to be sure, of self-described lazy, unmarried bachelors like (at the time, at least) Jeff Vandam, who penned a defense of paper delivery menus in a New York Times op-ed soon after Felder's proposal.
Vandam cited delivery menus as an "invaluable educational tool" that told him about the character of his neighborhood while he was in his apartment playing Xbox, saving him from having to "walk around the neighborhood and search out those restaurants" himself. "The restaurants came to me," he noted. The menus were also barometers for how hot "hot" neighborhoods had actually become. If Red Hook was being papered with delivery menus from Greenpoint, well then, "the local 'hot'-ness had not yet spawned a decent collection of places that deliver."
Advances in technology, even in just a few short years since Vandamn's op-ed, make these defenses all seem rather quaint. All the laziest person in the world needs to do to achieve the same results is to doubletap his or her phone and zoom in on the neighborhood's restaurants while the Xbox is paused. Particularly talented Xbox players may even be able to do both at the same time. Paper menus may well serve New York restaurateurs, out-of-town guests, and delivery guys for a while, but there's a law of diminishing returns for residents. Anyone who has lived in one area for any length of time (read, the typical two-year New York lease), knows that the once-treasured restaurant delivery menu folder, the manila envelope or plastic sleeve, is one of the first things to be tossed once you move.