Acoustics
Indoor climate and well-being
Interior design

Beautiful soundscapes make your food stand out

1 January 1

Dining out isn’t just about the food. The experience starts from entering the restaurants covering everything from the atmosphere, acoustic comfort and interior design. I share why and how acoustics should be on the menu when designing or renovating a restaurant.

restaurant-soundscapes

A dining experience should be memorable and enjoyable. If you’ve ever left a restaurant feeling irritated or exhausted, you have experienced how noise in a restaurant plays a big role in the experience.  

How Does Noise Affect Our Well-Being?  

For most, being exposed to noise is just an annoyance that will pass when we leave the noisy space. Despite being a temporary annoyance, the unwanted noise can lead to hearing loss,[1] tinnitus,[2] hyperacusis[3], cardiovascular and disease[4] as well as stress, anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure and increased heart rate[5].  

Let’s put it into a real scenario: if we’re conversing and you’re listening to me from 1 metre away it will be around 60dB. It means that it’s a safe and healthy noise level. But if we’ve the same distance but I’m playing the trumpet with around 115 dB, it will most likely damage your hearing.  

You should know that hearing damages not only cover how loud the noise is but also depending on the time you’re exposed to a constant high noise level. For example, being one hour in a noisy environment of 94 dB can cause hearing loss.  

In some cases, hearing loss can be temporary but if vital ear parts are exposed too long and too much noise, it can cause irreparable damages. For all these reasons it’s important to be aware how noise influence our health and wellbeing and be aware of the safety measures for a proper sound reduction.  

The Impact of Restaurant Noise on Customers’ Dining Experience 

Several studies show[6,7,8,9] that an average noise level of 94 dB is not an exception in restaurants. The highly noisy environment influences the customers and their experience, but the true horror is the people working in restaurants are daily exposed to the unwanted noise. For many years, the top 1 complaint from visitors of restaurants, cafes and bars were about the service. But within a few years, the number one complaint has become noise[10].  

According to research[11], half of the visitors in a noisy restaurant remain seated despite the excessive noise but they will never come back. I am sure you’ve experienced getting the wrong order simply because you couldn’t hear each other, right? That’s what we call bad speech intelligibility in a noisy environment.    

People would visit a restaurant more often if the indoor acoustic environment would be improved. And it seems that an acoustic improvement is urgent as 8 out of 10 people have problems holding a conversation in a dining area [12]

Article illustration, Rockfon, blog post, insight, graph, noise, hearing damage

Kill the Noise in Restaurants, Not the Vibe 

Noisy environment is not good for our health or the restaurant business, and as a restaurant owner, you want to create a soundproof restaurant. But how to create beautiful soundscapes?  

A restaurant should have the right balance between speech intelligibility and speech privacy. And it’s a tricky point. The restaurant shouldn’t be too quiet because that can be quite unpleasant for the guests as they feel uncomfortable.  

Using music as a masking tool can be very helpful. But don’t forget to keep background music as what it’s – background music. So, it shouldn’t take too much attention.   

When it comes to the built environment many guidelines or standards are made to control the indoor acoustic environment. But what are the guidelines for restaurants?  

Some national standards about acoustics are available but it’s just a handful and they differ from country to country. The most used parameter for measuring the acoustic comfort is the reverberation time. It’s the time needed for the sound to “fade away” or decay in a closed space. Requirements for reverberation times go from 0,30 to 1,20 seconds.  

Table 1: Comparison of different standards for reverberation time (RT)

Country

Reverberation Time 

Comments

Source

Norway

class A: 0,33 sec. 

class B: 0,41 sec. 

class C: 0,51 sec. 

class D: 0,69 sec

Depends on the ceiling height [A]. Example is with ceiling height of 2,60m 

NS 8175: 2012 

Sweden

class A: 0,50 sec. 

class B: 0,60 sec. 

class C: 0,60 sec. 

class D: 0,80 sec

 

SS 25268: 2007 

Finland

≤ 1,20 sec. 

STI ≥ 0,60 

Ääniympäristö Ympäristöministeriön 
ohje rakennuksen ääniympäristöstä, 2018
 

Spain

≤ 0,90 sec. 

Empty room 

“Guía de aplicación del DB HR. Protección acústica frente al 
ruido”. CTE Ministerio de vivienda. 
Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación. (versión borrador 6, 23/03/2011).
 

Australia

0,60 - 1,00 sec. 

≤ 0,80 sec. 

≤ 1,00 sec. 

See note [B] 

See note [B] 

Hotels (bars and lounges) 

Industrial Buildings (lunchrooms) 

Office Buildings (cafeterias) 

Health Buildings (dining areas) 

Restaurants, cafeterias, coffee shops and food courts 

AS/NZS 2107:2016 

Acoustics - Recommended design sound levels and reverberation times for building interiors 

[A] class A: RT= 0,13 x h, class B: RT= 0,16 x h, class C: RT= 0,20 x h, class D: RT= 0,27 x h 

[B] Reverberation time should be minimized for noise control 

Controlling the reverberation time also means controlling the noise levels as it’s clearly defined in the standard used in Australia and New Zealand. ‘Reverberation time should be minimised for noise control.’     

Talking to a chef or a restaurant owner about the reverberation time, he or she has no clue what you are talking about. What works best is letting them experience it and hear the difference. 

Keep the Noise Levels to a Minimum for Better Customer Experience    

All aspects such as interior design, furniture, amount of people and different surfaces influence the feel and comfort in the restaurant. That also covers how it sounds. It starts with the foundation, the room itself covering the shape and dimensions influences the indoor acoustic environment. Soundwaves want something to reflect on, so avoid using parallel walls as they can create irritating horizontal reflection. And the bigger the volume of the space, the more reverberant it will sound. 

For designing restaurant and bar areas, the most popular trend is “Less is More.”  Originally, it’s a phrase said by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1947 and presents the minimalist interior design standing for a sense of order and essential quality where it increases engagement in the dining experience. But with the heavy use of hard smooth surfaces like glass, wood, concrete, and plasterboard, it also rises the sound levels. These materials reflect the sound rather than letting it die away. The result is a cacophony of sound. 

202106010 RW-RF ILLUS 729

 

Another feature of the restaurants is to let the customers get the full experience and see the kitchen area. The open kitchen aspect welcomes a significant amount of noise and disturbances into the dining area. It’s the point of central activities, where the food magic happens. But with a mixture of loud unpleasant sounds, it can also create an evil noise demon. 

Tablecloths help reduce the sound of silverware and glassware clattering on tables, but it will not have a huge influence on the lowering the reverberation time. The ceiling and walls may be the biggest culprits of amplifying sound in your restaurant, but there are ways to get them to stop noise from spreading. Adding acoustic materials to the space will reduce the reverberation time dramatically and help accommodating to the guests and less harmful for the restaurant employees.  

The Tasting Senses Are under Attack       

What many people don’t know is that noise also affects your taste. Researchers from Unilever and the University of Manchester found evidence when eating in the presence of loud compared to quiet background noise the taste of the food changes. The food’s saltiness, sweetness and even the “liking” diminished when the food was eaten under noise conditions of 75 -85 dB[14]. The background noise influences our perception of food and guests may not experience the food that the chef had in mind.  

Controlling Acoustics Is Making Money! 

Customer loyalty and satisfaction are crucial to the long-term success of any business, but it’s the cruel truth for restaurants, cafés and bars as guests are not only paying for the product being served but also for the experience starting when they enter through the door. The noise levels have a huge influence on the overall satisfaction[15]. Research shows that if the background noise increases, the willingness to spend time and money in a restaurant also decreases[16].  

202106010 RW-RF ILLUS 728

It’s no surprise that restaurants have grown louder over the past few decades, and people really is annoyed by the noise while dining. This is not to say that all restaurants are the same, or should be silent, but an acoustically well-designed restaurant can elevate the space and make it sound more beautiful and create a welcoming and lively atmosphere. 

Are you designing or revamping a restaurant? 

Watch this video about the influence of acoustics and hear first-hand from the owner of a MICHELIN Guide Restaurant in Holland, about the difference the new acoustic atmosphere has on his customers and staff.  

The owner of Restaurant Calva says:  

'We're really able to connect with our customers, so you feel like you can spoil them'. 

Sources:  

[1] Mayes Jan L. (2019), Urban noise levels are high enough to damage auditory sensorineural health  

[2] WebMD (2019) Medical Reference, reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on Nov. 12, 2019 https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/understanding-tinnitus-basics  

[3] Sharon Goodson, ASHA (2015), MA, CF-A, Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Raymond H. Hull, PhD, Professor of  Communicative Disorders and Sciences, Audiology, Wichita State University https://www.asha.org/uploadedFiles/AIS-Hyperacusis.pdf  

[4] Münzel T. et al. (2018) Environmental Noise and the Cardiovascular System, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Volume 71, Issue 6, 13 February 2018  

[5] Joy Victory (2019), Healthy Hearing, Oct. 21, 2019, https://www.healthyhearing.com/help/hearing-loss/noise-induced-hearing-loss  

[6] Oticon Study (June 2018) “Huh? What are the noisiest restaurants in top food cities in America?”   

[7] Rusnock C & McCauley Bush P (2012) Case Study, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 9:6, D108-D113  

[8] To W & Chung A (2015) “Restaurant noise: Levels and temporal characteristics”  

[9] Lau S et al. (2017), A comparative study of restaurant sonic environments in Singapore, Macao SAR, and Hong Kong SAR    

[10] Top complaints of diners Zagat Survey 2018, https://zagat.googleblog.com/  

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/for-those-with-hearing-impairments-restaurant-noise-isnt-just-an-irritation-its-discrimination/2019/06/14/0223d722-8def-11e9-adf3-f70f78c156e8_story.html  

[12] Action on hearing loss, Speak easy: Hearing the views of your customers, Luke Dixon 2015  

[13] Woods AT et al. (2010), Unilever R&D Vlaardingen, The Netherlands, School of Psychological Sciences, University of Manchester, UK, “Effect of background noise on food perception”  

[14] Raab C et al, (2013). Restaurant Customers’ Perceptions of Noise and their Satisfaction and Loyalty Behaviors, International Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Administration, 14:4, 398–414.  

[15] Bottalico P (2018), Lombard effect, ambient noise, and willingness to spend time and money in a restaurant, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 144, EL209