In some cultures rather than asking someone they were just introduced to, “How are you?” people ask: “Have you eaten?” They figure that if you answer yes, you are relatively well and happy, but if you haven’t eaten, that needs to taken care of first.
Sharing food is a social activity that’s connected to our basic need to survive. It is a common practice across all cultures and nations to share food, and it brings us together as families and friends. It gives us the opportunity to put down our smartphones and actually talk to each other. Unfortunately, this opportunity is being challenged by an ongoing trend when we dine out.
In the last few years, a study was done and distributed widely to the restaurant industry that justifies noisy restaurants because they encourage patrons to drink more and eat faster. This means more liquor sales and a quicker turnover in tables in the dining area. Both of those also mean more money.
But I think the trend is short sighted. Unless you intend for your business to last only a few years, excess noise will hurt sales in the long run and has a negative impact on repeat customers, the wait staff and other employees.
When I say noisy, I don’t mean just slightly loud—because I do think some background noise is helpful. It helps to mask conversations and provides a sense of privacy. Normal human speech levels register between 55 and 60 A-weighted decibels, or dBA. If the background noise in a restaurant approaches this level, the room noise is like being at a party where everyone talks louder and louder as the size of the crowd increases.
In the acoustics industry, this is known as the “cocktail party effect,” and its results are well documented. Acoustical research allows us to calculate noise levels based on the number of people at the party. Eventually, it rises to the point where everyone is shouting, and only a portion of what is said can actually be understood. Eventually, there goes the social exchange that allows people to interact and connect.
Furthermore, the industrial look is definitely on the increase in restaurant design. Perhaps it is perceived as modern or flexible or hip, but I believe that many decisions about creating stark or rustic interior finishes have to do more with reduced costs and ease of maintenance than with aesthetics.
New businesses are challenged by competition—especially in the restaurant industry—and I understand the need to save money, but restaurants with bare concrete floors, open ceilings with metal decks or painted gypsum board and lots of glass will most likely be too loud.
The noise is the result of too much reflected sound that interferes with the intelligibility of speech. Spaces with all hard surfaces would definitely benefit from acoustical finishes. The goal is not to be too quiet, like libraries with background noise levels between 30 to 35 dBA, because patrons notice a loss of speech privacy. On the other hand, background noise levels of 40 to 45 dBA increase speech privacy and help mask conversations between tables.
Reducing noise levels also benefits restaurant staff. They can better serve the customers, carry on a friendly conversation and avoid incorrect orders because they couldn’t hear. I do not like having to repeat my order three times because the busy waiter or waitress is being bombarded with noise from all sides.
Extreme noise also leads to stress and increases in heart rate and blood pressure. Less noise is healthier. The restaurant industry is stressful enough without the added, self-induced noise. There are many acoustical products available to match almost any interior concept, and at a wide range of costs, owners and designers would do well to consider installing them.
Turn down the sound, and I believe—with good food and better service—you will have loyal customers and more business longevity, rather than being the trendy, noisy flash in the pan.
Ed Logsdon is an associate principal at Denver’s D.L. Adams Associates.