Sound Bite: Restaurant noise

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Retail is not the only field in which sound and music have a significant impact on how we experience a certain space. The effect is just as dramatic in gastronomy venues.

Think about why you go to a restaurant. For the good food and the comfort of not having to cook? Sure! But it is primarily a social event. A romantic dinner, a business meeting or a family reunion. So what are the primary ingredients there? Mood and communication.

So as a restaurant owner you wish to set a mood that is attractive to potential customers and pleasant to be in for current customers. And to create such a pleasant mood it is important to keep in mind that people come to your venue for the social act of communication. They wish to interact with each other. This requires that they can hear each other properly.

Listen to the sound file I recently recorded in a local Italian restaurant. You will immediately notice how incredibly noisy it is. A hectic mix of people talking, and cutlery rattling. When subtle these sounds will generally evoke a cosy sort of mood, but in the sheer quantities and volume at which they appear here this positive vibe is lost and replaced by a stressful and annoying atmosphere. The restaurant owner decided to add music to this soundscape but it was so soft that the microphone did not pick it up over the noise.

This kind of noise is quite common in restaurants. Obviously it is the natural sound of people talking and eating, but why is it annoying in some restaurants and perfectly fine in others?

It all comes down to acoustics. Modern architecture favors large surfaces of hard materials such as concrete, glass and wood. Visually beautiful, but sonically disastrous. Any sound will bounce around and reach your ears multiple times, amplifying the original sound and filling quiet moments with reverberation.

So is this all bad? It completely depends on what you wish to achieve.

Research has shown that a soundscape like the one above will cause the release of the stress hormone cortisol. It will also make people talk less, since communication takes more effort. These factors make for a shorter meal. At the same time people will drink more. This is a byproduct of the fact that they spend less time talking. Because people have to speak louder they will also drink more to keep their throat from aching.

So if you wish to serve as many clients as possible, covering each table two or three times per night, it might be advisable to create a loud and uncomfortable atmosphere like this. In fact, it is quite common practice among budget restaurants to do so. Add up tempo music and you have created the ultimate eating factory. Studies have shown that we take significantly more bites per minute when quick music is playing than we do with slow music in the background, preparing us to leave sooner. Add to that a rise in revenue from drinks and you have got yourself a time efficient concept.

Hold on, didn’t I start this article by saying the social aspect of going out for dinner is one of the most important drivers here? Well, it is. And so you will find that the more up-market the restaurant, the more focussed it is on comfort and pleasantness. You still do come across expensive restaurants with excellent cuisine and awful sound though. This shows the owner has not designed an overall experience and forgot one of the most important aspects deciding how comfortable we are.

I urge restaurant owners to focus on the overall atmosphere of their establishment. Creating an acoustically pleasant space and adding the right music to it will result in happier customers who are more willing to pay and return. It is key to make your customer feel welcome and comfortable. Handling acoustics and background music well will then add a sense of privacy which will make their conversation more enjoyable.

As always, the big lesson here is to be conscious of what you are exposing your customers to. Make sure all your outings are intentional and support your marketing and communication goals. Any incidental sensory input, is a lost chance to communicate your message!

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