5 Causes of and Solutions to the Restaurant Noise Epidemic

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Would you sit a party of four at their booth and then ask them: “Do you mind if this construction worker uses a jackhammer beside you whilst you eat?” Of course not. Fact is, though, this evening in restaurants across LA and New York, diners are being put through torturous and noise-regulation-breaching ordeals of jackhammer proportions.

A 2015 Zagat Survey shows 24 percent of diners’ nationally rate noise as their primary restaurant gripe (second only to service). A similar Los Angeles survey proved some restaurant noise levels are the equivalent of diners enduring lawn mowers, power drills, heavy traffic and whirring blender annoyance whilst trying to enjoy their meals.

The ramification is revenue loss at the till. These lost dollars, however, are only the beginning of problems for restaurateurs who don’t act to reduce high noise levels.

“Would you like a side order of hearing loss with that?”

Sustained durations of 90 dB noise levels result in hearing damage when experienced for sustained durations. Those are levels where employers must issue sound protective safety equipment to workers, and many surveyed restaurants showed levels in excess of this figure.

Do you want an environment where servers must wear ear protection, where customers can’t have a conversation? The threshold where normal conversation can occur is 45 to 50 dB, according to the ACC Audiology Awareness Campaign Report, by the way…

The good news is that noise levels can be substantially reduced with a retrofit and by applying procedures in line with restaurant design best practices. First you need to determine where the noise is coming from and, for new restaurant designs, where the problem areas will be.

The problem areas and solutions to auditory woes:

1. Your Kitchen

Noise Source: From employee talk to mechanical dishwashers, pots and pans banging, etc.. Restaurant Design Best

Practice Solution: Enclose the kitchen area, and go against the “in” design concept of moving the food preparation area into the dining area. Adding a “sound buffer” zone between the swing door of your kitchen and the dining room will reduce disturbance to patrons.

2. Your Patrons

Noise Source: High noise levels are a self-perpetuating problem, as, often, patrons need to speak louder in order to be heard above the racket. Large dining areas and communal seating plans can also lead to issues, with throngs of conversations exacerbating the restaurant noise epidemic.

Restaurant Design Best Practice Solution: Install more intimate booths. Use carpet to stop the sound waves from bouncing. Use specialty acoustic materials on the ceiling – materials scientifically engineered to dampen the din. While some acoustic design solutions can be aesthetically unpleasant, noise absorption paint used to augment more attractive ceiling designs results in a relatively painless compromise (and makes a world of difference to your guests). Lastly (and this solution isn’t for everyone), avoid targeting more boisterous, younger patrons by altering the customer profile of your restaurant.

3. Building Systems and Restaurant Design

Noise Source: Heating and ventilation systems, plumbing noise, high ceilings, rigid and polished surfaces.

Restaurant Design Best Practice Solution: Using vibration dampening material should cut out much of your building system noise. Expense is an issue, but research shows using recycled materials like cork and rubber can reduce the cost burden. Many restaurateurs faced with this problem are lowering their ceilings and experimenting with innovative equipment positioning – ice machines with roof-mounted condensers, for instance, produce much less noise and make a noticeable difference in small restaurants. Making use of noise minimizing fixtures and fittings to reduce noise is also an option.

4. Heavy Traffic

Noise Source: Exterior traffic from nearby roadways and parking lots.

Restaurant Design Best Practice Solution: If your business is adjacent to the roadside or a well-traveled parking lot (or if you have an outdoor patio for patrons near either or both) it is difficult to keep engine noise from encroaching on the dining area. Having four walls and a roof doesn’t always guarantee auditory protection. Keep in mind, the sound can come through walls if your building wasn’t properly sound insulated. Look to barrier materials, but keep an eye on aesthetic depreciation. Use a heavy door, and try to maintain a policy of keeping the door into the dining area closed as much as possible.

5. Normal Operations

Noise Source: Using bottle bins, mechanical equipment, music, intercoms, etc..

Restaurant Design Best Practice Solution: Known noise threats (like certain mechanical device operation or bottle recycling) can and should be limited – both for your profit and the comfort of your guests. By putting procedures in place where the equipment will only be used (or the audibly offensive activity will only be carried out) whilst patrons are not on-site, you will stop the contribution to customer loss. Music is a matter of choice, but by not cranking up the volume, or by moving towards a more ambient atmosphere in your restaurant design, you’ll remove this issue.

Everything communicates, whether by design or default. And if you’re restaurant is too loud, you’re sending a clear message to your guests – one that drowns out all other aesthetic efforts. Sensory branding might be a popular buzz-word, but that’s because it’s a strategy that works. Make sure your restaurant and your brand are sending the right auditory signals at a pleasant (and profitable) volume.

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