Ordering in large groups

When you go out in a large group, ordering can sometimes become a pain. This is especially the case if you know each other well and want to collectively share a large number of dishes rather than each person ordering a dish for herself. Usually, you can end up either under ordering (I’ve seen cases where three curries have been ordered for a table of ten people) or over ordering (when lots gets left over). And someone or the other is usually left unsatisfied.

There are two extremes in which collective ordering for a large group can actually work. At one extreme, there is one “leader”, whom everyone else trusts to order. The leader finds out the group’s preferences and aggregates them and takes the decision on the group’s behalf. Usually the leader is someone who is trusted, so their decisions are generally followed. There might be some inefficiencies but the rest of the people can focus on the conversation while the leader can bask in the glory of power.

The other extreme that works is completely decentralized ordering, like we did last night when I met a bunch of relatives. People trickled in slowly, and we found it was not feasible (for the butterflies in our stomachs) to wait for the whole group to arrive before we started ordering. And so I ordered a pizza and a pitcher of sangria (when in a large group you don’t need to specifically target who is going to consume the pizza and each glass of sangria – it gets aggregated over). I took a slice of the pizza and a glass of the sangria, and the rest actually disappeared rather quickly.

As people came in, they got the hint, and we never had to waste any time in discussions of the “shall we order this” sort. People kept ordering what they wanted, and since we had an implicit agreement of “sharing”, everything presently got consumed. That we were collectively full was indicated by the point in time when no one was ordering. It turned out to be a fantastic dinner.

Now, there are some conditions that need to be met for this kind of ordering to work. Firstly, there should be no one in the group who is shy or hesitant to order by themselves or requires pampering – such people will end up hungry in this situation. Secondly, there should be some sort of implicit trust in the  group that people will be somewhat reasonable in their order. Finally, given that the only way to split the bill in such situations is equally (since who ate what is rather fuzzy) “tragedy of the commons” should not happen. All conditions were broadly satisfied last evening, and (in my opinion) things worked out.

What kind of ordering algorithms have you used in the past, and how has that fared? Do you think decentralized ordering actually works, or if there are other conditions that need to be satisfied for it to work? Do leave a note on your experiences with ordering!

4 thoughts on “Ordering in large groups”

  1. Our method–well tested for “Chinese” is “one entree per adult-equivalent*” plus “enough” steamed rice (monitored by the waiter).

    A very large man might be 1.5 ae, while two or three small children might be .75 or 1.0 ae.

    1. What you say makes sense. Except that this pizza-pasta place we went to has such large portions of pizza and such small portions of pasta that some rebalancing is required!

      and given chinese portions, isn’t “one entree per adult-equivalent” a lot? And that equation can again break down if some in the group want steamed rice, some want fried rice and some noodles!

  2. For other cuisines we usually go “every man for himself” with some guidance for younguns.

    Tab is total plus tip divided by ae (see earlier).

  3. Initially (during my engineering days), experienced tragedy of the commons often. Then switched to buffets (still not much better for vegetarians). Now its back to a la carte, but with age, the ability to be reasonable in ordering food has increased a lot. Drinks are paid for by only those who drink. So not much of a fuss anymore.

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