The State of American Dining in 2015 survey by Zagat listed noise as the top complaint for 24% of those surveyed – this is only second to poor service at 26% and surpassed both prices and crowds! But if you live in Portland, apparently noise is the top complaint.

The NY times heard the same complaint from diners and put it well in their article, Noise in Restaurants – This Disconnect with Diners:

“How do you feel about restaurant noise?” Of the 1,232 responses, nearly 80% said “Loathe it.” (About 14% said they don’t notice noise, and about 7% love it.) Echoing numerous restaurant reviewers around the country, Todd commented, “The most consistent complaint I hear from friends and readers has to do with noisy restaurants.” 

“When we socialize, engage with each other, we tend to do so in restaurants. Noise disrupts this. Overwhelming noise is a barrier. And while energy is good, we do hear from consumers that they are feeling so overstimulated. Restaurants can provide a better experience by being conscious of this.” – June Jo Lee, VP, Strategic Insights, The Hartman Group

Both of these surveys were of the general public, with or without hearing loss.

If you ask any audiologist their patients most common complaint, its “hearing in noise.” As someone with normal hearing, I can tell you I have a lot of trouble enjoying dinner conversation in noisy restaurants and I actively avoid restaurants in which anyone in my group won’t be able to enjoy conversation or understand the waitstaff. I encourage my family and patients to do the same – seek out places that are quieter and/or will accommodate you by finding a table that is away from the noise, turning down music, and have the server face each person when speaking.

But as a restaurant owner, tackling this issue can be quite challenging. Depending on the layout of the restaurant (which usually does not consider acoustics enough), installing panels that damp noise, partitions, or use of materials that absorb more reverberation can be pretty involved. What to do?!

Well, if you can, design for noise before you open or during other remodels. This means acoustic paneling covering at least 50% of high ceilings, layouts that keep kitchen noise separate from the dining area, and possibly partitions that prevent the reverberation of large open spaces with hard surfaces. But that takes some time, so, while you are working on that there are 3 main things that can be addressed in short order:

  1. Turn down the music – We know it adds to ambiance but there is a threshold at which is causes more trouble than it’s worth. Also, a good sound system with the ability to turn down the volume more in certain locations than others, get a better balance of bass and treble, and limit distortion may be of use. It’s time to get a sound level meter out and start crunching some numbers people.
  2. Trained Staff – Most people think yelling is how you compensate for trouble understanding in noise…this notion can cause some serious customer service issues and misunderstood orders, not to mention, servers who loose their voices. Training staff to communicate better in noise is often restaurant dependent based on the customer base, how the menu is arranged, and even the lighting. Sorry, I can’t be more specific on this one – you can ask customers directly what they need or have me do a walk through and training with you.
  3. Lighting – Seeing people makes it easier to understand them. Additionally, if it easier to read the menu, it is easier to communicate with servers and reduce errors. Again, we know lighting is part of ambiance, but there is a range that can get you the greatest effect with the least negative impact on customer experience. Overall restaurant lighting can be different than lighting directly at the table.

Contact me with questions on how to go about getting your eatery up to speed on noise.

As a restaurant goer, what are your top 3 suggestions for improving noise and communication in your favorite places? Comment below.

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