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At most restaurants that I've seen, the middle of the table is set up with:

  • One salt shaker
  • One pepper shaker
  • A small dish of a few sugar packets

Why isn't sugar put in a shaker like salt and pepper are?

  • 41
    Sugar shakers are found on every table in just about every restaurant in the southern United States. They look like this—a little different than the photo PixelSnader shows in his answer. I've never seen that tube-like spout on top. They always have a little covered hole in the top, with a cover that is hinged and moves out of the way when you try and pour. I've never had a problem with flow or anything like that. Of course, artificial sweeteners are never in shakers and always on paper packets in a table-top basket. There are too many different brands. – Cody Gray Aug 9 '15 at 4:44
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's not a UX question. Plus, the premise of the question is incorrect. – DA01 Aug 9 '15 at 17:53
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    @DA01 Ah, I apologize. I figured since my question was, at the base, "Why is <this> display like <this>, and not <this> like everything else is?", I thought it was on-topic. – SirPython Aug 9 '15 at 18:21
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    @SirPython there may be a misconception that why a particular product is the way it is 100% because of UX Design. It's rarely because of UX Design. Often it's due to all sorts of other factors. – DA01 Aug 9 '15 at 20:47
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    @Cody, arguably, that isn't a "shaker". The sugar pours out and this comment sort of suggests why it isn't in a shaker. – Octopus Aug 10 '15 at 21:47

10 Answers 10

134

Because, at the table, a shaker is entirely the wrong dispenser for sugar.

Shakers are used to sprinkle small amounts of a substance over an area, which is exactly what you want for salt and pepper. Sugar is used to sweeten drinks by adding a relatively large amount, which is just dumped in the drink and not spread over an area. If you tried to do that with a shaker, it would take forever and you'd end up with sugar all over the place.

Note that, in the kitchen, one might use a shaker. Pastry chefs often use shakers to dust things with powdered sugar or flour.

  • 25
    I think this is really the only UX-centric answer here. – DA01 Aug 9 '15 at 17:55
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    Though it should be noted that this is exactly the reason why sugar shakers are used in baking (for the final presentation anyway) - you just want a spraying/coating of sugar over the product. – Luaan Aug 10 '15 at 9:48
  • @Luaan This is a good point. I mentioned it in a comment somewhere but I may as well put it in my answer, too. Thanks for the reminder. – David Richerby Aug 10 '15 at 9:57
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    A shaker is exactly right. The problem is that sugar gets rather nasty in shakers at the top as hands and moisture touch the top. Salt and pepper handle this much better. So some places tried pourers but nobody wants to pour sugar all over their stuff and these get dirty too. If someone could keep the top of the sugar shakers clean they would be on tables everywhere. Your answer is more of a bad guess. – blankip Aug 13 '15 at 3:50
  • @blankip "nobody wants to pour sugar all over their stuff" But who wants to shake sugar over their stuff? – David Richerby Aug 13 '15 at 8:07
69

Salt and pepper are (generally) used in smaller amounts.

  • A sugar packet also is a sort of measuring unit; it's roughly as much as a sugar cube. That means that you can use it for coffee and tea without having to pay attention to how much you use.

  • Sugar clumps faster than salt and pepper do, I think, so you don't want any tea/coffee steam to clog up the shaker. Maybe packets feel more sanitary for this reason, too?

  • Note that there are sugar shakers in existence, at least in Europe. They're just not as common.

Sugar

Video showing how one works.

  • 31
    The so-called sugar "shakers" you show are somewhat common Europe, indeed, although I wouldn't call them "shaker" - you shouldn't shake them, after all. Rather, they allow "pouring" out the sugar in a somewhat controllable way (as also shown in the video). I suspect another reason is that it is not a traditional shaker is that like this, the sugar dispenser cannot easily mistaken for a salt or pepper shaker (or vice-versa). – O. R. Mapper Aug 8 '15 at 22:08
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    the place where I have most commonly seen items like that picture are in diners in north america. – njzk2 Aug 8 '15 at 23:23
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    I would add that while a sugar pourer used to be much more popular in restaurants, alternative sweeteners are now more common. Having a few packets for each is going to be more compact than having a separate dispenser for each. – BowlOfRed Aug 9 '15 at 1:43
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    That's not a sugar shaker. It's a dispenser that, when inverted, drops roughly a teaspoon of sugar into your tea/coffee. – David Richerby Aug 9 '15 at 10:44
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    There are sugar shakers that look like this one, that don't dispense the sugar in teaspoon amounts. Be aware. – uxfelix Aug 10 '15 at 7:44
25

It's to do with a combination of the granularity of the substance you're using, and the amount that you want to use.

Table salt and (ground) pepper have fairly small granules, and so flow well from a shaker, and you usually use a fairly small amount of them. So a shaker is a good solution.

Sugar typically has larger granules, and hence flows poorly. In addition people tend to use a lot more sugar than they do salt. So a shaker is a poor solution. A sugar dispenser or a sugar pourer is a good solution as it allows for larger amounts of sugar to be dispensed as well as larger pouring spouts, which facilitate pouring of substances with larger granules.

enter image description here enter image description here

Types of sugar that are finer, and used in smaller amounts often come in shakers. As an example the type of sugar used on pastries such as Dutch poffertjes is typically in a shaker.

enter image description hereenter image description here

  • 2
    Also, pastry chefs often use shakers similar to the green one you picture, for powdered sugar and even flour. – David Richerby Aug 9 '15 at 10:52
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    Don't forget the affects of moisture or the temptation to insects! Sugar seems to clump better than salt, and when it does, it gets sticky. Ants seem drawn to sweet things in a house, and shakers may be an open invitation for them to feast (eww!). If these considerations aren't actually more true for sugar than for salt/pepper, I think the general public may be at least believe so. – jvriesem Aug 9 '15 at 15:23
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    Both sugar and salt actually bind to moisture in the air. Most people are used to using salt that has a chemical added to make it flow better, but that's not strictly true of good quality pure salt. But in tropical regions, you definitely want your sugar in an airtight container. – JohnGB Aug 9 '15 at 16:11
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    @jvriesem I used to see, every once in awhile, sugar pourers (of the kind illustrated here) with a saltine cracker embedded in them. It was done precisely to absorb moisture and keep the sugar crystals dry and clean. But, nevertheless: yuk. – davidbak Aug 10 '15 at 21:07
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    @davidbak: My parents and several restaurants near me put a few dozen grains of rice in their salt shakers for the same reason! – jvriesem Aug 10 '15 at 22:48
14

Typically, salt and pepper are applied uniformly over a meal.

Sugar on the other hand is mostly used to supplement tea or coffee in solution. As such, the precision of the application of the condiment is much less important. It will just be stirred in later.

  • indeed, anyone who has applied salt from a packet (as e.g. served in fast food restaurants) onto their meal will know the "d'oh" feeling when things entirely end up in one spot. In addition, there usually is too much salt in a single packet... – Gerhard Aug 9 '15 at 9:28
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    @Gerhard Tip the packet into your hand and sprinkle it with your fingers. (Actually, I tend to do that even with shakers since, whenever I don't, they dump salt all over my food like they think they're Niagara Falls.) – David Richerby Aug 9 '15 at 10:53
  • @DavidRicherby I don't get the Niagara Falls' reference. I love eating salty food. Also, sometimes they put a few grains of rice in the salt, to absorb moisture. Trust me, you don't want raw rice in your fries. – Ismael Miguel Aug 9 '15 at 13:56
  • @DavidRicherby: yes, I tend to do that as well with packets (and rubbish shakers), but I really hate to a) throw away half the salt and b) have sticky/salty/grainy fingers afterwards. Guess it does not matter too much with fast food, but still not the most pleasant feeling. Certainly would not want to do that in a proper restaurant. – Gerhard Aug 9 '15 at 13:57
  • In my opinion, practicality-wise, this should be marked as the answer. – Gideon Aug 17 '15 at 4:19
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There is a misconception in the question in the idea that sugar would even be in a shaker at a restaurant table. The sugar you see on a table at a restaurant is not the type of sugar you'd ever see in a shaker. As other's have pointed out, confectioners sugar would be in a shaker, but there's no need for confectioners sugar at a table. You have granular sugar at the table.

There's also an overgeneralization in the question in that you see sugar in packets in 'most' restaurants. Many restaurants still have sugar in pourable containers as they are designed for the purpose of putting into tea or coffee. These are called sugar pourers:

enter image description here

The reason it's both larger and acts as a pourer rather than shaker is due to how we use sugar: we typically use a lot more of it, and pour it into our drinks (as opposed to shaking it minimally over our entire plate ala salt and pepper).

As for why packets of sugar exist, the answer is likely entirely due to cost. The reasons why it may be cheaper to use packets:

In summary, the reason that sugar isn't in a shaker like salt and pepper is because we use it in entirely different ways than salt and pepper. As for why sugar packets are common is mostly purely business financial reasons--not user experience design.

9
  1. People tend to use much more sugar than salt and pepper.

  2. People usually know how much sugar they take in their coffee or tea. "I take my coffee with two sugars". No one has a set number for the amount of salt and pepper they use, because unlike coffee and tea, food is generally seasoned by the chef before it reaches your table. You might get a steak with very little seasoning, and you would need to add a lot of salt and pepper. But the next time you get a steak, it might be perfectly seasoned, and adding the amount of salt and pepper you used last time will ruin it. A coffee (at a diner, not a coffee shop) comes with no sugar, so you always know how much to add.

  3. Putting sugar into a salt shaker would make it impossible to use in a reasonable way. People measure sugar in full teaspoons. It would take 30 seconds at least to fill a teaspoon with sugar from a shaker. I take 3 sugars in my tea, so I would have to spend a minute and a half sugaring it.

  4. Kids tend to play with everything on the table, and playing with sugar makes a horrible mess. Sticky sugar residue is gross and attracts ants.

  5. If you put sugar in a salt shaker, it would be useless the first time the weather turned humid. Sugar clumps up even faster than salt.

  6. Packets of sugar contain a specific amount of sugar, making it easy to use. They are also are more hygienic. The product is kept away from meddling hands, and remains granular, as opposed to forming a single giant clump.

  7. Despite all the reasons listed above, the fact remains that sugar pourers do exist.

enter image description here

5

It's so you don't mix them up.

Salt and sugar look identical to the naked eye. When you would put both in shakers and place them next to each other, guests could mix them up, leading to horrible culinary results.

Sure, you could make them discernible by labeling them or giving them a different design, but then every household and restaurant would use a different convention to tell them apart, easily confusing people, especially when they are distracted.

  • 1
    Sugar crystals are generally larger and more shinny than salt. I have no problem telling it apart, as long as I pay attention. – kasperd Aug 9 '15 at 18:04
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    @kasperd if you pay attention to the condiments instead of the conversation with the people you enjoy a meal with. – Philipp Aug 9 '15 at 18:11
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    This is at best only part of the reason, and a distant second to the main reason: volume needed. Even if sugar were perfectly distinguishable from salt (say, bright red in color), the shakers used for salt and pepper would still be useless - you can't get a teaspoon or two out of them in a reasonable amount of time. – Andrew Medico Aug 10 '15 at 22:34
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A shaker is designed to add seasoning onto the top of food. Sugar, is only really used like that when in powdered form (confectioners sugar) and is specific to a few deserts. The packets, like those at restaurants, are designed specifically to add sugar to drinks. The clump of sugar coming all at once, breaks the surface tension of the drink and allows the sugar to become submersed in the liquid for optimum diffusion. It would also take far longer to measure out the required sugar for a drink using some sort for shaker.

  • Most people stir the sugar into the drink so diffusion isn't an issue. – David Richerby Aug 13 '15 at 22:15
1

I worked in a dessert restaurant for a few months in college. We had sugar shakers on the table, one powdered and one sugar cane. This is more of a usability issue.

Sugar becomes rather... I am not sure of the exact word but... dirty. A little moisture and hands on the shaker and the top of the shaker looks like ass. We had to wipe the sugar shakers during shifts and the tops were washed a lot.

Compare that to salt and pepper which dries out cleaner and this is a no brainer. You can have your ketchup fingers all over the salt shaker and the damn thing cleans itself. Touch the sugar shaker top and then the next table holds it like they have a poo in their hand and asks for a new one. The sugar pourers solve this issue. However they are not attractive and cannot help people sprinkle so most places opt for packets.

1

I quickly read through these answers and, though admittedly I may have missed something, I did not see one single mention of the real reason why sugar is not put in a shaker:

Capitalism.

Your sugar is not in a shaker for one reason above all other (still legitimate) reasons mentioned above: because every one of those little colored paper packets is an advertisement for a highly successful manufacturer of sugar (often Domino), and sugar substitutes (e.g. Sweet n Low, Splenda, Stevia, etc.). Because if you put sugar in a shaker you'd still have to have the paper packets for the large quantities of people who prefer the myriad alternatives, and each one has a pretty large audience who oftentimes will only accept their preferred brand of chemicals.

This NY Times article includes some helpful info on the value of the sugar substitute industry and brand loyalty among consumers within that industry: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/15/dining/15sweet.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

So now each table is saddled with THREE shakers PLUS the little ramekin of sugar substitutes, and as a restaurant owner you're in a quandary as to how much table space can be justifiably devoted to dry seasonings (especially since a lot of places that leave these things on the table are also the places that will either leave things like ketchup and mustard on the table or will likely bring it with your food).

Here's a Slate article where a chef discusses removal of salt and pepper from tables due to "table real estate": http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/08/15/salt_shakers_at_restaurants_the_double_standard_between_bellanico_and_boston.html

So no, it's not just that sugar is dirtier or that the uses are different than salt and pepper in terms of how you disperse it (though those are valid and logical reasons). It is, as in many things in life, a money thing.

  • Is salt in a shaker because of "capitalism?" I have a packets of salt by my desk. Is this the result of capitalism as well? Is Dentyne Ice in a package (instead of loose in a shaker) as a result of capitalism? What aspect of the capitalist model makes sugar go into packets as opposed to salt? – Mayo Aug 14 '15 at 14:53
  • While your sarcasm is noted, the difference is that there isn't the brand loyalty among salt brands. Not many people look at Morton's and say "no, I only use Diamond Crystal." And yes, your gum is in a package as a form of marketing, but gum isn't left in generic, unmarked containers for a number of other reasons. So despite your sarcasm, your premise is actually pretty invalid, and anyone with a grandmother who steals Sweet n Low packets just in case the next place only has Splenda (i.e. my own grandmother) has seen this in action. – JShweky Aug 14 '15 at 15:02
  • The point I was making was that "capitalism" is not the root cause of this behavior. Capitalism applies both to sugar and salt and yet it's different. – Mayo Aug 14 '15 at 17:51
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    One could argue 'capitalism' is the answer to every "why is this consumer product the way it is" question asked on this web site. :) – DA01 Aug 15 '15 at 2:01
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    That said, note that sugar also does not have brand loyalty, so I'm not sure your theory holds up as well. Yes there are a lot of sugar substitutes out there, but they are all actually different products--not different brands of the same product. And that sweeteners come in packets doesn't mean sugar couldn't remain in a pourer--in fact that is a not-uncommon scenario in a lot of diners and coffee shops. – DA01 Aug 15 '15 at 2:04

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