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The noise level in your operation is just as important as the food, service, and décor according to recent surveys conducted by the National Restaurant Association. The San Francisco Chronicle includes a noise rating as part of every restaurant review. And a growing number of restaurant patrons are making their selections to dine out based on ambiance — specifically noise levels.

It's a hot issue, noise levels in restaurants. Usually left to chance, acoustics can make mean the difference between success and failure. On the positive side, high noise levels can create a fun atmosphere and add a social energy that attracts customers and keeps consumption levels high. On the negative side, high noise levels endanger your employees' hearing and can drive customers to drink... someplace else.

No matter the style of your operation, the noise level must be appropriate. In most cases moderate sound levels — whether it's background music, the multi-tonal sounds of happy voices, or the buzz of a kitchen — are good for business. And you can strike the right balance between table turn and higher alcohol consumption, while protecting employees who are exposed to the din for up to eight hours at a time.

Carpeted floors, padded walls, room dividers and upholstered seating are all ways to dampen noise. Another method I suggest wasn't included in any of the research we did on this subject: Put a muffler on your employees. There's a lot of unnecessary noise created by employees. They shout orders to one another, toss wine bottles into a trash containers from 10 feet away, throw dishes into bus tubs with reckless abandon, and deal china and silverware across bare tabletops like a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas. During a peak time, sit down in your own restaurant, close your eyes and open your ears. Do you hear good noise or bad? Do you want to stay or flee?

An additional consideration is that all of our senses work together. We know that smell and taste are closely connected. Remember trying the apple/onion taste test with your nose plugged? It's no different when your ears are plugged up by obnoxious sounds. The subtle flavors that your kitchen works so hard to produce, and your servers strive so diligently to deliver in a gracious manner, can be totally overwhelmed by an overdose of bad noise. I actually know one diner who has been driven to stuff bread in her ears.

Don't let this happen to you! If you suspect that your restaurant might be inappropriately loud, use your Guest Comment Card to ask your guests how they feel about the noise levels. One decibel level does not fit all. Once you've eliminated the bad noise, you can control the volume as necessary throughout the day. Don't you agree? Speak up... I can't hear you!

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