So much of a restaurant operator’s focus is put onto designing the menu, the seating, the decorations… but how much of that ends up sabotaged if the guests can barely see any of it? Lighting is an aspect of restaurant design that can be easily overlooked by even the most seasoned of owners or managers.
How much of a dining experience gets ruined because “an intimate atmosphere” is really just too dark? Or what if a restaurant is too bright for the style of establishment? It can definitely kill the mood of a restaurant to send your guests home with headaches.
Whether you’re seeing complaints about lighting in your online customer reviews or outfitting your restaurant for the very first time, the choice of how to light your space can be overwhelming. But with so many bulb and fixture options out on the market today, you can easily customize your lighting to fit your restaurant’s specific needs.
Just as long as you know what to aim for — and what to avoid — these little details can make the difference between an environment that welcomes guests back and one that scares them away.
When Are You Open?
The time of day you’re open for service can be a touchstone for how you approach lighting your restaurant. If you open in the late afternoon and only serve dinner, sticking to a low intensity, softer light for atmosphere is key. If you’re primarily a breakfast/brunch place, bright lighting can help set the mood for the day and give customers the light they need to read their newspaper with their morning coffee.
Lunch can be similar, with lighting that’s comfortable for the day crowd, but still vivid enough to encourage table turnover. You want customers to enjoy themselves, but not necessarily spend all afternoon at a table sipping water and reading a novel after finishing their lunch. Dimming the lights for evening service, even if you’re open all day, is an easy fix for ambiance as well.
If you’re opening a breakfast or lunch restaurant for the first time, consider a location with large windows to take advantage of natural light in the mornings. When you serve the bulk of your customers during the day, windows can do half the work of lighting (and perhaps even cut electricity costs) compared to restaurants with less natural light.
However, even restaurants with expansive windows will need to be prepared with accent lighting for cloudy or stormy days, as well as with shading for super bright days.
The Color of Your Light
All light bulbs have a “color temperature,” or a specific shade of white light. Warmer orange and golden tones can be found in one kind of bulb (generally tungsten-based) whereas you might prefer the crisp white from another bulb.
What kind of restaurant do you have? Quick serve and fast casual might want a brighter, crisp white to create a faster pace environment and more of a daytime feeling. Fine dining could have warmer colors for a more refined atmosphere. Family restaurants can go somewhere in the middle – brighter than formal dining, but not as bright as quick serves.
No matter what color lighting you choose, be sure to view your food underneath it before committing to a restaurant full of bulbs. You’d hate to outfit all of your fixtures with bulbs that make your main course look sickly or otherwise unattractive.
Don’t Go Too Dim
A mistake many operators of formal dining establishments make is keeping their restaurant too dark. You can certainly to create a mood with your evening lighting, but be careful not to do it at the expense of visibility – and not just visibility at the tables, but throughout the entire dining room.
Dramatic atmosphere is important, but your guests still want to be able to see the menu. This is particularly important if your regular clientele is middle-aged or older. Ultimately, lighting that gets in the way of guests being able to order will not result in a positive dining experience. Which leads us to …
Focus on Functionality
Yes, style is a big part of decorating your restaurant. You want all the elements of your dining area design to be cohesive with each other, and that includes the lighting. However, it can be easy to stumble when focusing on how a potential lighting fixture looks instead of how a fixture makes everything else look.
Make sure whatever fixtures and bulb styles you choose are just as practical as they are stylish. It does no good to get a light bulb with the right brightness and color only to have your fixtures darken the room or seem radically out of place for your brand.
Electricity is a huge part of a restaurant’s utility bills. It can account for nearly one-quarter of a restaurant’s energy costs. Conventional incandescent bulbs and halogen lamps can also generate a lot of heat. This can not only make your guests and employees uncomfortable, but will also increase your air conditioning and electricity use to compensate.
With that in mind, investing in energy efficient bulbs for your lighting can be a great way to trim down that utility bill. LED lights are an option for both the front and back of the house. They do cost more upfront than conventional bulbs, but they last much longer, saving you money in the long run.
Check Out Restaurants Doing It Right
A good exercise for any business owner is to keep an eye on trends and successes in their industry and local area. The next time you’re dining out at a restaurant (especially one similar to your own), pay attention to the lighting. Does it create the appropriate mood? Does it add to the dining experience or does it detract from it?
More than that, when you find yourself eating in a restaurant that has great lighting, how is it set up? Where are the light sources installed? What sort of color do the bulbs generate? Make note of these details so you can incorporate them into your own restaurant.
Reach Out to Peers
We’ve often noted how reaching out to your fellow local restaurateurs for networking and knowledge-sharing can bring a whole new level of insight to how your approach handling your financial challenges.
The same can apply to advice on any renovation or FF&E decision. Connect with nearby restaurant owners, especially ones with long careers in the restaurant industry, and ask about how they’ve handled lighting issues. It’s very possible that they’ve going through the same struggles you have with lighting their own restaurant and came up with the solution. They may even have a great referral for wholesale fixtures that can save you money.
At the very least, simply chatting with your peers can help bring some frame of reference to your lighting options, and open up possibilities you may not have thought of on your own.
Considering other front-of-house improvements? Check out our free eBook on “Restaurant Renovation” now: