How sound affects the dining experience and what you can do.
Restaurant owners can't ignore the quality of the dining experience and the importance of audio. After all, it affects how we interact with others and the world around us. Restaurant owners know this all too well, as that's why they often invest a great deal into high-quality sound systems that will please diners from all angles. In our blog post today, we'll explore food and audio's glorious history, as well as how to create a "full-sensory" experience in your establishment.
To Compose the Perfect Bite, Listen to Your Food.
Taste, smell, and hearing are the primary senses that can affect the appetite, preference, and satisfaction of eating. The sense of taste is the most complicated. It's a complex affair involving taste buds, brain chemistry, and emotional and social factors. To fully appreciate the taste of food, diners rely on hearing the crunch of shellfish, the fizzle of corn on the cob, and the pitter-patter of the raindrops on the windowsill.
Sound can impact both our perception of taste and the experience of eating. There is a part of our nervous system where taste buds become stimulated across the eardrum. High sound levels tend to suppress our perceptions of sweet and salty flavors. On the other hand, there is an enhancement of umami flavors.
Sound, including background noise, affects food perception in the same way it affects music. Sound can distract us from the experience of eating, or it can enhance it. The right level of sound can even be pleasant and harmonious. But, too much can be off-putting and cause us to eat less.
Research suggests that sound is the "forgotten sense" when it comes to perceiving flavors. The next time you eat out in a restaurant, consider the sounds around you. Is there music playing? Just the gentle hum of other people's conversations? Maybe it's loud and booming; perhaps it's relatively quiet. According to a growing body of research, whatever the acoustic atmosphere, it could affect how you experience the flavor of the food and drink you're consuming. Charles Spence is a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, studying the relationship between sound and taste for years. "When people think about flavor, they might think about taste, they might think about smell, they might think about what it looks like but do they don't think about how it sounds.
I'm sorry, can you repeat that?
Whether it's the Lombard effect or other reasons, most restaurants have a severe noise problem affecting customers and staff and therefore the business. In the United States, for example, the 13,000 American diners who responded to the Zagat Survey 2018 indicated noise was their biggest complaint (24 percent), more than service (23%) and even crowds (15%).
We also know that exposure to noise impacts our hearing, influences our mood, and even our long-term health. This should be worrying enough for restaurants who want customers to return and recommend them and for high-quality staff to stay. But they face another problem, more specific to the business—noise affects taste, too.
Research from Charles Spence found that sweetness, saltiness, and overall appeal ("liking") of the food increases in quieter environments (45-55dB) and goes down significantly in louder environments (75-85dB). If the food is essential, acoustics should be too.
Designing acoustics into a restaurant.
Most restaurants will put a lot of effort and focus into the taste of their food, but they aren't looking for a library-like atmosphere to go with it, achieving the right vibe results from many choices from design and decoration to layout, music, and more.
So what factors affect room acoustics, and what can restaurants do to improve them without killing the vibe? The answer to both questions is 'A lot.'
Some of the factors affecting room acoustics include the type of restaurant it is (café, bar, fine dining, food hall); the type of room (shape, volume, ceiling height, open kitchen, people capacity), and the ratio of sound-reflecting surface areas to sound-absorbing ones.
To improve room acoustics, we generally need to absorb sound. Hard, smooth surfaces and materials like concrete, wood, and glass reflect sound, causing unwanted effects like echoes. In acoustical terms, a room like this has a long "reverberation time" (RT), measuring the time it takes for a sound to fade away.
Low-tech and high-tech acoustic solutions
Materials like rugs or carpets, drapes, plants, and furniture help shorten the RT, making conversation more manageable to understand despite background music and nearby conversations. The RT isn't the only acoustic parameter to consider; others include Speech Clarity (C50) and the A-weighted equivalent continuous sound level (LAeq (dB)).
Decorative elements can only accomplish so much because their absorption abilities are limited even in large amounts. They require the owner to add features to a room that they may not want.
More practical options are acoustic ceiling and wall solutions. Absorbing far more sound gives restaurants and architects a range of design options to choose from, including nearly invisible elements that blend into ceilings or ones that contribute more to the overall design of the space.
What about the speakers?
Detailed thought when selecting the type of equipment you use, the setup, the design in the space, and what you need from the system. Must be evaluated and carefully considered.
Check out our next blog on the design qualities for different scenarios and what you can do to make the audio experience pleasant for your diners.