The atmosphere of a restaurant is often overlooked in favor of other factors, but restaurant owners have to pay attention to the ambiance of their dining room just as much as the food they serve and the service they provide.
In general, there are three aspects of restaurants that guests notice when they eat there for the first time: cuisine, service, and atmosphere. Customers may prioritize one of these factors over the other, but for most guests, any one of these can determine whether or not they return to a restaurant.
The goal of a restaurant, no matter the concept or target customer base, is to give diners an experience that makes them want to come back repeatedly. A strong, loyal customer base keeps a restaurant thriving and earning enough profit to stay in business. Creating an exceptional restaurant atmosphere is a necessary and often overlooked part of offering a memorable experience to diners.
What Is Restaurant Atmosphere?
We can name some concrete aspects of a guest’s experience in a restaurant that make up the atmosphere, but in reality, a restaurant’s atmosphere is more of an abstract concept. It’s the feel of a restaurant, something that — when done right — can enhance the entire experience of a meal.
Any part of a restaurant that influences the way guests experience dining will contribute positively or negatively to the restaurant’s ambiance and atmosphere. This includes the decor, furnishings, music and even the way in which servers dress and the chef’s presentation of the food.
The fact that the atmosphere of a food service establishment can be made up of so many different factors is what makes it so difficult to control. Just one of these aspects being out of line with the others can affect a restaurant’s success.
Why Is Atmosphere Important?
The food service industry is one of the most intensely competitive markets, so it’s likely that the target audience for your restaurant has options outside of your business alone. The degree of competition in the foodservice industry is considerably higher than average. Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not customers make decisions about their dining choices based on atmosphere and concept alone.
Can a Bad Atmosphere Be a Deal Breaker for Guests?
According to a study performed by researchers at The Ohio State University: nearly one-fourth of restaurants don’t make it past the first year. While there’s a variety of plausible reasons for this, it’s possible that this statistic can be attributed in part to a poor atmosphere in a restaurant establishment and the simple fact that managing a restaurant isn’t easy.
There is research to support the claim that a good restaurant atmosphere is important to guests. Coyle Hospitality Group performed a study using data from nearly 2,500 diners about an establishment’s atmosphere. The study breaks the results down into three separate groups based on the average price of a meal: casual, luxury, and upscale.
Diners at each restaurant level were asked how much certain factors influenced their tendency to recommend a restaurant to friends and peers. The factors studied were staff attitude, atmosphere, timing (service), and food. Unsurprisingly, diners at all levels reported that food was the most important factor in their decision to recommend a restaurant, but the atmosphere was a major consideration, at least for the upscale and luxury dining groups.
The results show that diners value atmosphere, so much so that a negative atmosphere would make them less likely to recommend the restaurant as a whole, no matter how positively they reacted to the food, staff, and service.
How to Create a Good Restaurant Atmosphere
Every restaurant is different, so there’s no recipe for an atmosphere that gives guests a strong, positive impression of your business. With that said, here are some of the factors that guests are most likely to notice about a restaurant that contribute to its atmosphere.
Adherence to Concept
The foundation of a restaurant’s atmosphere starts being planned the moment a restaurant chooses the concept. The concept should be in considered in every decision that could potentially shape the restaurant’s atmosphere. For example, a classic diner concept should feel like what guests expect out of a diner: a bar countertop, a lot of tile, pastel colors, and stainless steel with barstools and booths making up the furnishings.
Sometimes, the concept won’t need a specific atmosphere to make it feel authentic. A modern steakhouse, for example, doesn’t have a precedent — customers don’t have a preconceived notion of how this type of establishment is supposed to look and feel. There’s no blueprint for creating a good restaurant atmosphere with a place like this, but the atmosphere still matters.
Decór and Furnishings
Diners are more likely to respond positively when the wall decorations, paint colors, furniture, and decorative accents are all part of one cohesive theme. Consistency is key in creating a restaurant design that contributes to a memorable restaurant atmosphere.
Restaurant lighting has a huge effect on the ambiance. Most fast food and fast casual restaurants go with colder, bright, fluorescent lighting because guests don’t take atmosphere into account as much. However, at sit-down locations, a comfortable, warm light is more inviting and appealing to guests.
As a general rule of thumb, harsh, cold lighting isn’t conducive to a good guest experience because it contributes negatively to your restaurant’s atmosphere or lack thereof.
While the cleanliness of a restaurant isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when considering its atmosphere, it’s one of the most important elements. No matter the concept or target audience, no one wants their dining experience to include dirty tables, trash, sticky surfaces, or any other signs that they might be eating somewhere that isn’t as clean as it could be.
The music that you play, if any, should be conducive to a positive dining experience for guests. For example, while fast casual and fast food dining establishments can get away with nearly anything in the way of music, loud heavy metal music wouldn’t be the ideal choice for an upscale dining experience.
The volume at which music is played also contributes to a good or bad restaurant atmosphere as well. If music is too loud, diners typically attempt to talk over the music. This increases crowd noise, which generally isn’t a positive contributor to the overall dining experience.
While service provided by restaurant staff is clearly important, when it comes to atmosphere, it’s also important to consider the way staff is dressed and the attitude they convey. For example, a server dressed in jeans and a t-shirt wouldn’t fit well with an upscale sit-down dining establishment.
The presentation of the food matters as well. Soul food/comfort food restaurants add to the atmosphere and the experience by piling food high on a plate, while modern, upscale eateries arrange menu items meticulously on each plate. It’s important for restaurants not to underestimate the marketing power of meals that guests are eager to photograph and share.
The devil is in the details. The type of POS system being used affects a restaurant’s atmosphere. It’s a known fact that newer, iPad POS systems lead to quicker restaurant service, but depending on the aesthetic you are trying to give off, they can also contribute to the atmosphere of a restaurant by enhancing a modern concept.
What You Should Take Away
Unfortunately, there’s no “one size fits all” solution to improve a restaurant’s atmosphere. If you feel (or you’ve found out via customer surveys) that your restaurant may be lacking in this department, it’s time to get creative and seek out the answers based on your concept, because atmosphere almost certainly matters to your guests.
The bottom line is that while they might say this isn’t the case, most diners go to restaurants for more than just the food. A good restaurant atmosphere can ensure that your guests take positive feelings away from interacting with your business. Now it’s up to you to recreate that in your own restaurant.