Your restaurant is bustling. The dining room is full of people laughing and talking. Servers are moving through your space, taking and delivering orders. By all appearances, business is booming. There’s a palpable energy customers can feel the second they walk through the door. So why isn’t everyone smiling?
It’s noise. Your restaurant is just too loud.
Controlling the volume of your restaurant space isn’t just about turning down the music. It’s about controlling reverberation between floor and ceiling (and wall to wall) so that normally acceptable levels of noise don’t get amplified to uncomfortable levels. If your space has a lot of bare, hard surfaces, echoing can quickly take low levels of sound produced by conversation, footsteps, or background music and create a massive explosion of sound — making your restaurant difficult to enjoy.
Even summertime open air restaurants have this issue. Yes, they have the benefit of one less surface to bounce noise, and one very large area through which sound can escape. However, seal that release valve when weather turns cooler, and suddenly your restaurant — known for its pleasant atmosphere and great overall experience — can become taxing for diners of all ages.
Does loud noise make your restaurant feel fuller? Certainly. Even a half-empty dining room can give the impression of success if it has that positive sense of bustling energy. But you need to find the right balance between making your restaurant feel busy and your guests being able to hear their companion (or server) across a small table. Spending money upfront on an acoustic expert to soundproof your restaurant may seem like an extraneous expense among many more quantifiable ones, like smallwares and technology, but the return on investment could be sustainable clientele.
Kiri Eschelle, Regional Sales Manager at Rewards Network — and former restaurant and record label owner — describes not investing in acoustic remedies at the outset as a big mistake. “Every single time I walk into a restaurant, especially if it’s got a good amount of people in it, I immediately ask myself, what’s the ambient noise like? What’s the reverberation sounding like in the restaurant? How comfortable is it to have a conversation? Is that not the intent of the restaurant? Do they want it to be ear-blisteringly loud?
“Some people may not even be conscious of it from a customer perspective of what was it that didn’t quite fit with them?” Eschelle explains. “Because when you’re thinking about a restaurant, it’s ‘What’s it look like? What’s it taste like? What’s it feel like?’ When they’re thinking about food, they may not be thinking about ‘What does it sound like?’”
And that disconnect could make return visits questionable after an otherwise perfect evening. In fact, the 2014 Zagat Boston Restaurants Survey found that rather than service or price, the number one irritant encountered when dining out is restaurant noise level. Over 70 percent of those surveyed claim to avoid restaurants that they consider too loud.
So, what’s “too loud”? The American Academy of Audiology has a scale for acceptable noise level for people with normal hearing that places most restaurants nationwide in a decibel level much higher than recommended to prevent discomfort — and customer dissatisfaction.
|Noise Level||This is…||Decibel range||Similar volume|
|Moderate||too quiet.||50-60 db||Falling rain.|
|Loud||where you want to be.||70-80 db||Alarm clocks, vacuum cleaners.|
|Very Loud||where most restaurants are.||90-110 db||Jackhammers, sporting events.|
|Uncomfortable||damaging to hearing within 30 seconds.||120 db||Jet plane take-off, rock concert.|
But it’s not just about your customers, whose hard won return visit you’re risking. The health of your employees needs to factor into the noise level of your establishment as well. Unlike guests, who infrequently spend an hour or so in your restaurant, your front of house staff are likely experiencing high levels of persistent sound for up to eight hours at a stretch if service is consistently busy. And even when hearing loss — temporary or permanent — isn’t a factor, quality of performance can be affected by noise level. Your server’s primary responsibility is to be attentive and responsive to your guests’ needs. If the environment of your restaurant makes hearing their requests correctly (and on the first try) difficult, the experience your customers walk away with will likely not be remembered fondly.
Hiring a soundproofing contractor to come into your space, evaluate your needs, and provide a plan for remedying excessive noise levels is the best way to ensure a positive dining experience for your guests and employees alike. Here are a few things experts recommend considering when working to control sound in your restaurant space:
Acoustic sound-absorbing panels installed on walls and ceilings are a soundproofing expert’s first go-to, and will be the most effective solution to dim down ambient noise in your front of house. But just because they’re functional doesn’t mean these panels can’t contribute to your restaurant’s overall ambiance. Acoustic panels can often be painted or otherwise disguised to match the aesthetic of your restaurant. If your decor is traditional, having murals or other images painted on the panels can contribute to the story you’re telling with your food. If you’re looking for a stark, clean atmosphere in your dining room, simple black, white, or muted color fields painted across the panels can blend them into the environment or provide an interesting focus to the room. Don’t be afraid to get creative! Just remember to keep your brand at the forefront of any decision.
Generally, acoustic drop ceilings both provide a great reduction in ambient noise and disguise unsightly wiring, plumbing, or drywall that could distract from a pleasant dining experience. But not every space is going to feel natural with that style of standard ceiling paneling. Fabric ceiling sails can give a more modern or high end impression to your dining room depending on the color, material, and style of draping. Acoustically rated tin panels are available for vintage inspired spaces. These modern tin panels provide far more protection against reverberation than their original counterparts at the previous turn of the century. In the past, “popcorn” ceilings were sprayed with textured material — which would then be painted over — mitigate echoing. We’d suggest avoiding this treatment since it tends to collect dust and cobwebs.
While we hesitate to recommend guerrilla DIY soundproofing if the decibel level in your restaurant is high (leave those complex renovations to the pros), there are things you can do to make slight adjustments to diminish echo between bare walls, hardwood floors, and tall or reverberative ceilings. Adding absorptive material to your dining room in the form of canvas paintings, large plants, or other porous objects can keep noise from bouncing interminably.
Once upon a time, many restaurants solved this problem by decorating with carpet, thick drapery, and fabric chairs, but that style will likely not reflect the contemporary atmosphere most restaurants today are looking for. On top of that, all of those materials stain easily, absorb smell as well as they do sound, and can end up looking worn long before wood, glass, or fiberglass.
Soundproofing your restaurant isn’t about needing to hear a pin drop (or easily overhearing that couple at the next table). If your soundproofing efforts go too far in quieting the din of your dining room, there’s an easy remedy. Background music provides the perfect amount of white noise that is pleasant for a dining environment, and can be customized to fit your clientele or even adjusted by time of day or event, as necessary. It’s about providing that right level of comfort so that noise is the last thing on your guests’ minds, and their overall experience with you drives them to return again and again.
Considering other front-of-house improvements? Check out our free eBook on “Restaurant Renovation” now: