Restaurant Briefing: Noises – The Disconnect with Diners

Promote Your Business Restaurant Industry By American Express January 23, 2015

Todd A. Price, Dining Writer for Times-Picayune, recently asked readers, “How do you feel about restaurant noise?” Of the 1,232 responses, nearly 80% said “Loathe it.” (About 14% said they don’t notice noise, and about 7% love it.) Echoing numerous restaurant reviewers around the country, Todd commented, “The most consistent complaint I hear from friends and readers has to do with noisy restaurants.” It’s a common cry, one that has reached the pinnacle of customer dissatisfaction in the Zagat Dining Trends Survey. Diners around the country now rank noise in restaurants as their #1 complaint.

What Annoys Diners Most

But by all accounts – and there are many – restaurants are actually getting noisier. Why the disconnect? Explanations range from the unintended acoustical consequences of contemporary design – with its hard surfaces, open spaces, and tables close together – and of poor planning/no budget to spend on acoustics in the design phase, to theories of restaurants targeting younger customers at the expense of older ones, and attempting to sell more drinks and turn tables.

When we socialize, engage with each other, we tend to do so in restaurants. Noise disrupts this. Overwhelming noise is a barrier. And while energy is good, we do hear from consumers that they are feeling so overstimulated. Restaurants can provide a better experience by being conscious of this.” – June Jo Lee, VP, Strategic Insights, The Hartman Group

“I think it’s purposeful but not intended to be punitive,” defends June Jo Lee, VP, Strategic Insights, The Hartman Group. “People were thinking about elevating the experience of the food and, in the process, ambiance often got left behind. Now being all about the food and less about acoustics is a trend.” Ruth Reichl, former Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet magazine and Restaurant Critic of both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, isn’t as generous. She recently told The New York Times Magazine, “The noise in restaurants is insane. I think it’s very deliberate: There’s this idea that somehow it’s more fun if there’s a roar in the room.”

There is some common ground between the dining public and restaurateurs – neither want hushed spaces or to hear the conversations at nearby tables. Almost universally, restaurateurs say that fear of a “dead” ambiance often drives their decisions – or at least explains their complacency when it comes to controlling noise levels. Architects and designers seem to agree. “I feel strongly that a very quiet experience – when it’s hushed all around you – isn’t good either. You want to be in a place that feels like you are part of a community,” says Jeffrey Katz, Principal, C&J Katz Studio. “Sound is an important aspect of the whole restaurant experience.”

The challenge is that one diner’s din is another’s energetic buzz, and some (but not all) of that is age-related. “There’s a certain group, usually younger, who are willing to put up with some ‘inconveniences’ to be where they want to be,” observes Ralph Gentile, Principal, Ralph Gentile Architects. “They are more willing to forgive.” While acknowledging that for Boomers “dining out is still a little bit of a special occasion” and for Millennials “restaurants have become their gathering places,” June also cautions restaurateurs not to make broad generalizations about younger customers’ appetite for noise. “I don’t think Millennials are any different from other generations in wanting a balance when they dine out.” Bonnie Riggs, Restaurant Industry Analyst, The NPD Group, adds that it’s not just the age but the occasion, and that there is more diversity than one might imagine, even among Millennials. “For Milliennials, it depends on whom they are with. They like excitement but sometimes – date night, catching up with friends, etc. – they, too, want a more relaxing atmosphere, especially older Millennials.” Both NPD and Hartman research point to the risks of marketing exclusively to younger customers. A new Hartman study finds the number of Millennials who eat out has decreased to 49% from 60% in 2011, and Bonnie reports that NPD has found that Boomers’ per capita restaurant visits are greater than other age groups. “In the battle for market share, you can’t alienate older customers,” Bonnie cautions.

But how can restaurants create that sweet spot – lively but not too loud; “buzzy” but not overbearing; vibrant, but not at the expense of diners’ ability to converse? The brave new world will be one in which restaurants have more control – to manipulate noise, not eliminate it. John Mayberry, VP, Emmaco, acoustic and integrated electronic system engineers, says, “There is a way to solve all these problems. It isn’t hard, it really isn’t, but it requires a commitment.” John says that the first step is to get the reverberation down – in other words, to minimize sound waves bouncing around in a space. Contemporary restaurants, with lots of hard surfaces – walls, floors, tables, windows, etc. – and fewer carpets, curtains, and tablecloths to absorb the effects of them are challenging and these spaces typically require acoustic intervention.

It begins with efficient sound absorption, John advises, specifically, “fiberglass, fiberglass, fiberglass. That’s the answer. Fit in as much of it as you can on ceilings and walls – just some is going to make a massive difference. Fiberglass is not expensive, $1-3 a square foot depending on its thickness, and typically solves 80% of reverberation problems. It’s like putting a sponge where the water is.” (A growing number of companies are specializing in panels that are painted, covered with fabric, or printed with photos, so fiberglass can be a decorative element.) John cautions that without the kind of sound absorption fiberglass provides, a room will never be good acoustically. “Most restaurants overspend on sound system hardware and not enough on the acoustics. If you have a poor acoustical space there’s nothing you can do with an audio system to correct it.”

Having stripped the room of as much reverberation as possible – making it somewhat of a clean slate acoustically, or “dry” – the next step to controlling noise can be to add some back. John is the first one to admit that this can seem like “black magic voodoo” but that it’s a common practice . . . just not in restaurants. “There’s only one restaurant, only one, that’s done it. And that’s Comal in Berkeley,” he says. Comal teamed with Meyer Sound Laboratories, a premier audio engineering company, using their proprietary Libra sound absorbing panels – custom designed to look like photographs and paintings – along with other acoustical treatments in tandem with Meyer’s Sound Constellation acoustic system. Numerous small microphones hang from Comal’s ceiling to capture the restaurant’s sounds. Those recorded sounds get sent to a digital processor which filters out high-pitched frequencies (glass clinking, silverware clanking, shrill voices) and then, in virtually real time, those sounds are reintroduced back into the restaurant via lots (95) of small speakers distributed throughout. “The speakers wash these sounds throughout the space,” explains Comal GM/Partner Andrew Hoffman. Using an iPad, Andrew and his colleagues can effectively control the level of “buzz” (reverberation) in the dining room’s two zones – front and back – including the bar in front, which is a little more lively than the dining room. “As the restaurant fills up, we typically cut back on the levels,” he says. (There are three presets that calibrate to changing occupancy in the zones.) “It’s not really volume we’re adjusting, it’s the reverberation – how long the sound waves live in the room. Certainly our space is not quiet – it’s a big, bustling restaurant with an open kitchen in the center. But it’s not nearly as noisy as it would be and conversations aren’t strained.” The acoustic environment at Comal isn’t as much about noise level as the kinds of sounds people hear – and don’t hear. Direct conversations are actually isolated – they come through clearly – while those around are tuned out, creating what Comal Owner John Paluska describes as the “holy grail of buzzy but conversational.”

It’s almost a mental thing when people walk into the restaurant. They expect it to be loud – we have lots of wood, steel, concrete, glass, and a big open kitchen in the center – but it’s not.” – Andrew Hoffman, GM/Partner, Comal, Berkeley, CA

The basic technique at work, John Mayberry says, is sound masking – used in many office spaces for increased speech privacy. Because humans basically tune out sounds that aren’t jarring and that they can’t make sense of, the low-level, unobtrusive (stripped of high-pitched, sharp sounds) background noise like that which is diffused throughout Comal masks sounds, including other people’s conversations. “You may hear conversations around you,” says John, “but you won’t understand them.” John says that restaurateurs could employ basic sound masking by purchasing ambient sound mixes, like those used in office systems, and playing them through their sound systems with the music. “These are soundtracks of the right kind of background noise,” he says. (To be effective, the more speakers the better. You need background sound coming from multiple sources so ears hear only a uniform, diffuse wash.)

Back to the immediate reality for most restaurants, “Everybody loves that silver bullet,” acknowledges Ralph. “You don’t have to do the Comal thing to try to control the sounds in your restaurant, but you need to be clever. Design direction now is opposed to the way we want to go in terms of managing acoustics, but no one wants to revisit carpets, heavy curtains, etc., so absorb sounds where you can; isolate them as much as possible. You can’t control everything, but you should make conscious choices and do the best job you can so it’s not a noise disaster.” Jeffrey is on the same wavelength. “Be clever about it. You can do a beautiful contemporary space with soft materials. Vary the surfaces and break the levels up a bit to help with reverberation.”

Remember that not all sound is bad. The collage of sounds coming from the kitchen – laughter, a little banter from the bartender – reminds you that you’re having fun. It’s a balancing act.” – Ralph Gentile, Principal, Ralph Gentile Architects

Both Jeffrey and Ralph acknowledge that restaurateurs typically don’t want to think about noise/acoustics in the design stages and that when it becomes a problem, it’s usually a crisis. “Fix-its aren’t pretty, pleasant, or cheap,” says Ralph. “And at that point, restaurants often don’t have the money. But it’s never all or nothing. There are little things you can do that will make a difference.” Jeffrey agrees, “I would encourage restaurateurs to tune their restaurants, tweak the spaces – it’s well worth it. There’s no real formula – just work on it until you get it right. Even then, it won’t always be right, especially at busy times when the space is full.” And they both agree that designers and architects need to press harder on sound. “It’s left to us,” says Ralph. “We should treat it with the seriousness we do other aspects of design and tell clients, ‘You really have to pay attention to noise. It’s going to translate into dollars.’ There’s an opportunity for restaurants that get it right. People are voting with their ears.”