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Designing for Dollars

Designing for Dollars

SUPERIOR INTERIORS: Guests feel more comfortable when they can figure out what your operation is all about from the entrance area. For instance, Echo in Palm Beach, Fla., offers executive chef Dieu Ho's "Resounding Asian Cuisine," and an interior that reinforces the message in its design details.

RAISING THE BAR: The dramatic Dragonfly Lounge at Echo in Palm Beach, Fla., is an example of how a restaurant's bar can be positioned to greet guests with a burst of visual energy. Specialties here include sake, creative cocktails and an selection of popular Asian beers.

Design matters. While most restaurateurs are aware that customers appreciate an attractive and comfortable environment, few know that there are deep psychological reasons behind the kinds of seating, lighting, music and other design elements that diners prefer. Knowing a little bit about environmental psychology may help you create a dining area that makes customers happier, and may even increase their spending. At the root of a lot of our behavior are two basic needs: the need for security and the need for stimulation. We like to have our own personal space and be able to protect it from intrusion, and we like our environment to be engaging and interesting.However, in both cases, too much of a good thing ceases to be comfortable. If we have too much emply space around us, we feel exposed, and if the dining room is too stimulating, we quickly take our patronage elsewhere. The trick for restaurant designers is to find that balance by creating the right kind of seating layout so guests can feel comfortable and protected. And, in designing the appropriate levels of lighting, sound and activity, the restaurant can be made lively without being chaotic.

Your guests will feel more comfortable if they can figure out what your operation is all about from the entrance area, before they commit to joining you for a meal. If you have an open kitchen or a lively bar, make it visible from the host stand or waiting area. Offer a view of some of the dining area as well, and seat those tables first so the restaurant looks busy. Humans are social creatures who like to know they've chosen a popular spot.

Any good restaurant host can tell you that most guests prefer booth seating. Given a choice, guests would rather sit with some kind of fixed architectural feature - a wall, a window or even a structural column - on at least one side of them to help them define their personal space. When laying out your dining room seating, consider placing tables around the periphery and using low walls, planters and other features to provide anchors for tables in the middle of the space. If your concept and budget permit, consider booth seating wherever you can. Some early research suggests that guests seated at booths spend more than guests seated elsewhere, but don't stay any longer than average, while guests at banquette seats may spend less and stay longer.

Be conscious of your target market when you plan your lighting, music and interior finishes. Different kinds of people have different tolerances for stimulation. For example, as we age, our ability to process what we see and hear diminishes. Therefore, after people reach 50 or so, they don't feel as comfortable in poorly lit or noisy settings. If your target market is baby boomers, turn the music down, ensure that the light levels on the table tops are bright enough to allow menus to be easily read, and add some soft finishes to the floors and at least one wall to help dampen ambient noise. Younger guests are often much more comfortable withhigher contrasts in light and sound, so your design can be a lot more stimulating for these groups.

If your goal is to increase the number of parties you serve each hour, there are a few subtle but effective design tools that can help you turn tables.

Music played at the rate of 120 beats per minute or more has been shown to increase server speed and reduce length of a customer's stay, so choose something upbeat for the stereo. Use freestanding tables rather than banquettes for your seating, and experiment with the spacing of tables so that there is just enough room for your servers to be effective. Whatever elements you choose to incorporate into your restaurant's design, make sure they fit your concept and are appropriate for your target market.

Guest-Pleasing Design Considerations

  • Make your restaurant's statement clear to guests as they enter.
  • Put the drawing power of open kitchens and lively bars to work, by making them visible from the waiting area or host stand.
  • Use low walls, planters or other features to provide anchors for tables in the middle of the dining space.
  • Take your target market into consideration when planning the lighting and interior finishes of your restaurant.

Stephani K.A. Robson is a lecturer - Hospitality Facilities and Operations - at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.