Is Food That Loud?
It’s practically official: “too much noise” is now customers’ single most-hated restaurant problem, ahead of bad service, bad food, and high prices. While open kitchens, cranked-up music-playback systems, and raucous diners certainly have played a part in amplifying this business-killing monster, many complaints were aimed squarely – and rightly – at the restaurant’s acoustics. Hard sound-reflective surfaces like stone, brick, and glass might look terrific to an acoustically-unaware interior designer, but to any acoustically-savvy observer, it’s a complete aural mess.
The result is often an age-layering of restaurant types, separating younger diners from anyone hoping to hear the conversation of their companions. Also, while not universal, loud noise will often mask poor quality, as a restaurant tries to increase the excitement of “the dining experience” for less-experienced customers. An underlying, far more dangerous result is that the staff of very loud restaurants will suffer irreparable hearing loss – is OSHA listening?
The problem has not gone unreported. Zagat, the prestigious restaurant guide, recently wrote: “What really bugs people when it comes to dining out? (Cue the latest Portlandia parody.) Our survey data revealed that noise was the most irksome at 24% followed by service (23%), crowds (15%), high prices (12%) and parking (10%).” (Zagat.com, Jan 7, 2018)
Consumer Reports, the product-ratings non-profit institution, reported on the issue in 2016: “For our survey respondents, the biggest bugaboo was noise—loud customers and blaring music. Second-rate service was another key annoyance, and of course people complained about food that was cold, burnt, over- or under-seasoned, or unappealing.” (Consumer Reports, Sep 20, 2016)
This isn’t a new problem, as shown in this article from New York Magazine (via Grub Street) in 2013: “But ask any weary gastronaut about the single most disruptive restaurant trend over the past decade or so, and they’ll give you a succinct, one-sentence answer. ‘It’s the noise, stupid.’” (New York Magazine, Jul 22, 2013, via Grub Street).
Nor is the problem limited to the U.S. – a European scientific research paper (BNAM 2012, J.H. Rindel, Odeon A/S, Denmark) studied the issue: “Noise from people speaking in restaurants and at social gatherings in closed environments is often a nuisance … and [because of] the difficulties associated with a conversation, the visitors may leave the place with a feeling of exhaustion. In many countries, there is a growing awareness of… accessibility for all in public buildings. This is not limited to the physical access but includes also that the acoustical conditions should be suitable.”
As more unhappy diners avoid overly-loud spaces, restaurant owners have started asking designers to solve the problem. But not to solve it too much – similar to Las Vegas casinos’ noisy environments, some level of sound chaos seems to help convey that hard-to-define “excitement factor.” Achieving “friendly” ambient sound levels somewhere between a library’s quiet and the threshold of hearing pain should be an obvious goal.
Also, the number of older, more affluent (and hearing-sensitive) diners has increased relative to the number of younger, less well-heeled (and possibly less noise-averse) restaurant-goers, another reason owners are beginning to view acoustical “tuning” as an essential part of facility design.
Acoustically treating a room is commonplace for critical-listening spaces like recording studios, high-end audio rooms, and concert halls, and the tools developed for those applications are readily available to restaurant architects and designers. Three of the best restaurant noise treatments include a tried-and-true product, a newly-researched technology, and an ecologically-friendly designer favorite.
One of the most-often applied products for absorbing sound is the fabric-wrapped fiberglass panel mounted on wall and ceiling surfaces. This solution is affordable, easy to install, and can be ordered in any combination of hundreds of fabric colors. You’ll see these panels in applications ranging from cinemas to industrial plants, and they work well to reduce reflected sound energy.
How can a flat piece of aluminum absorb sound? A recent cutting-edge broadband sound absorber technology is not like fiber-based acoustical ceiling tiles – it’s a micro-perforated aluminum panel that needs no fiber backing, because the tiny panel holes reduce sound energy. These Silk Metal™ ceiling tiles are easily installed in drop-ceiling grids and can be steam-cleaned, a real advantage in restaurants and bars where there’s a need to reduce the noise created in open kitchen and grille areas. Silk Metal panels look like elegant silk fabric and are available in black, white, anodized colors, and custom print images. They absorb as much or more sound than similar products with only a 4” airspace above the tiles.
An old standard for absorbing sound reflections in gymnasiums and warehouses, cementitious wood-fiber panels have been increasingly showing up in restaurants and bars, brought into the high-end design world due to tighter manufacturing tolerances and ecological practices. Affordable, easily painted and installed, Envirocoustic™ Wood Wool has only three manufacturing ingredients – wood fibers, Portland cement, and water. Available in stock panel sizes, custom shapes (Hexagons are also stock), and mild-to-wild paint choices, Wood Wool lets designers excite diners with color and placement while reducing sound levels.
Will the restaurant loudness wars subside anytime soon? That depends on customers’ willingness to make their displeasure known to owners, and owners’ demands on designers to pay attention to the sound environment. Great-looking advanced acoustical technology is now readily available (as is the sound system volume knob, which can easily be turned down). It seems the only remaining constraints are awareness of the problem and knowledge of the acoustical remedies. Architects and designers, we can help! Good food – and good design – doesn’t need to be that loud.