6 Pillars of Restaurant Ambience Management

When you think of ambience in a restaurant, or anywhere for that matter, you often consider things like music, lighting, temperature, smells, materials, and acoustics. Those are certainly components of great ambience (which, by the way, I learned can be spelled ambience or ambiance).  But in our series discussing a restaurants “LAMA” (lights, atmosphere, music, and ambience) we are referencing how it all comes together to create a vibe. It is possible to have great lighting, great music, a beautiful design, and lousy ambience. So, what makes a restaurant’s ambience great?

With ambience, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the interplay between the components that make or break a great restaurant’s vibe. Have you ever been to a beautiful restaurant that is playing music that seems to be a mismatch for the décor? The music might be fine … at a Jersey Mike’s, but not for a $$$ Italian restaurant. The music should fit the décor. Have you ever been seated close enough to a restroom to smell the soap or hear the Dyson hand dryer whirring? Or have you ever been to a steakhouse that has rounded out their menu with that one fish dish that stinks up the whole dining room every time a server takes one to a table? Independently, the components might be fine, but together they can be fingernails on a chalkboard. Something just isn’t right.

Chefs talk about umami – the art of balancing the five basic tastes. When a dish is achieves “crave-ability” (like the Beef Tibs at Desta off Clairmont in Atlanta) its goodness transcends description. The same goes for good ambience. It’s tough to put your finger on it but when it’s right, you know it. To test your restaurant’s delivery of cohesive ambience, look for these things:

  1. Smell – when the restaurant is open for business and a new customer arrives from the parking lot, what do you think they expect to smell when they walk in, and what do they smell when they walk in. What does your brand say they should smell? At bakery I once managed, I had the exhaust vents from the bread ovens rerouted to the front vestibule of the shopping center, so the smell of fresh baked bread wafted through the parking lot. It worked like a charm. Walk in from the outside with a “fresh nose” and focus on what your guest is smelling…then work to make sure it enhances your brand.
  2. Acoustics – Sure, music is vital, as I discussed in another article about music, specifically. But what about the acoustics in your foyer? The dining room? Can you hear the din of kitchen activity? What about the stereo being played by the prep cooks? Is one of your servers a boomer (with a voice that pierces through stone walls)? Walk through your restaurant when it is quiet and when it is running at full speed with the intent of identifying sounds and sound sources that pollute the guest experience.
  3. Sight Lines – Ever see signs posted at server stations, rear walls of bars, and at the host stand that appear to be from management directed to the staff? Signs like “use a cutting board when cutting lemons!” or “shut the door!” Not only is this poor management but it’s unsightly. Usually, they’re printed on 8 ½ x 11 paper, in Ariel font, and taped to whatever surface is supposed to be perfect for communicating to the staff. What about brooms and dustpans and mops? They should never be seen unless they’re actively in use…then they should go away. You’re trying to create a Disney experience …where customers only see things meant for them to see, and anything meant to be hidden remains hidden.
  4. Grooming – Indeed we are plowing through the 21st century and statements of individuality have reigned supreme for some time now. I’m talking about tattoos, piercings, color-wheel-inspired hair colors, roach colored nail polish, and a war on uniforms. There is nothing wrong with these statements, but they must be filtered to make sure that your staff’s displays don’t counter your customer’s appetite or offend your target audience. Excessive perfume – God forbit, ANY amount of patchouli – or general B.O. must be managed. When I’m seated at a restaurant, I don’t want to see a bull ring in my server’s nose…because all I can think of is their hand constantly adjusting their jewelry just before touching my plated food. Or I can’t stop staring at it to figure out where the hole is or to see if there is any “build up” on it. And unless it’s a restaurant featuring belly dancers, I don’t want to see spray-tanned bellies with belly button rings at eye level. Grant your staff their personalities but set limits that reflect the expectations of your target audience.
  5. Safety and Cleanliness – things that are disheveled are also often unsafe. No one wants to see an overflowing napkin bin… and those “visa fabric” napkins can be slippery if stepped on. I love the homes in Architectural Digest because they’re so clean. But most of those homes I can’t imagine living in because one errant sock on the floor or backpack tossed on the table, and the whole look is shot. If your restaurant is supposed to look “lived in” make sure that look is achieved through design. And if you’re going for Renzo Piano, enact protocols to keep it perpetually tidy. Customers feel safe in restaurants that deliver what they were designed to deliver. Dispensers should be full, floors should be clean, tables shouldn’t be sticky, lights should burn folks’ retinas, and trash should be hidden from view and/or frequently emptied if customer-facing.
  6. Lighting – Although we discuss lighting in greater detail in another article, this last item is perhaps the most important. All reflective lighting plans from your designer look attractive and on point, but the truly great ones make your customers more beautiful. Poorly aimed track lights can be an irritant as much as not being able to read the menu because of poor lighting or small fonts. Tables should “glow” but won’t if pendants are too high or non-existent. Lighting levels should adjust with the sun, getting dimmer as it gets darker outside. Florescent lights spilling out of the expediting window into the dining room can destroy a vibe as fast as a bright streetlight near a patio. Of all the things within a restaurant’s control, protecting the guest from poor lighting is probably the most critical.

Maintaining a restaurants ambience is a constant struggle but well worth the effort. Your guests are coming to your business to get away from their world and enter yours. When you enact protocols to maintain and deliver Shangri-La, they will reward you by returning again and again. No matter how cool your music collection or how much you spent on design or how good the food or how coiffed your staff, if the elements that touch the five senses are not working in concert, you’re leaving money on the table.

Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting