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The way you look

You’ve always figured that interior design has an impact on guest satisfaction—but now there’s proof. Few Americans haven’t heard the saying that it’s better to look good than to feel good. (The phrase was first coined in the 1980s by Billy Crystal on “Saturday Night Live.”) Funny, though, how the saying applies to the business of running a restaurant—and not only in the sense that you or your people are up at the front of the house or behind the order counter smiling at customers every day, even when you really don’t feel like it. The maxim also applies to décor and interior design: Sure, your shabby basement den at home might be more comfortable to flop in, but chances are you want your restaurant to look utterly svelte—defined and tempered, of course, by your segment.

Why this is the case is, of course, no mystery: Basic restaurant wisdom has taught for eons that guests will spend more money in, be more satisfied with, and more likely to return to, a nice- looking eatery. This thinking is so trusty and trusted that few would question it.

But has anyone actually proven it? Do the elements of a restaurant’s décor empirically and directly translate to higher checks and return business? Anecdotal experience might suggest so, but what about some real evidence?

Interestingly, far more academics and restaurant consultants have studied the relationship between food and service and improved business, than whether a glistening chandelier or some new floral-print wallpaper will inspire a guest to pop for a refresh on the pinot noir. But the empirical truth is that there is indeed a quantifiable relationship between a restaurant’s interior design and atmosphere and the business it does. Recent research has proven it. However, recent research has also discovered that design alone will always play a subordinate role to food quality in that sticky mix that determines a consumer’s satisfaction level. More on that later. Now the evidence.

Cited in this column previously (though relating to a different topic) is an unusual and somewhat hilarious 2003 study by Prof. John Edwards of Bournemouth University in the U.K. Seeking to find out what effect (if any) a restaurant’s atmosphere had on a customer’s appraisal, Edwards pulled one over on the dining public. His team cooked up a huge batch of Chicken a la King in a central kitchen, then whisked those dishes to 10 different eating venues, where they were consumed by ordinary visitors and customers. After finishing their meals, patrons were asked what they thought. The dining rooms included a boarding school, a retirement home, and a four-star restaurant. Guess where the same dish of chicken got the best reviews? “The results show that, in many cases, the environment is actually far more important than the food,” Prof. Edwards told the London newspaper The Independent.

Over in America, J.D. Power and As­sociates sought to find out how design figured into customer satisfaction —and it did so by simply asking the question to 55,000 restaurant patrons. Actually, customers were asked what factors were most important to them while dining out. Power came up with what others have called the Big Four—the four pillars of a successful restaurant: Food, Service, En­vironment, Cost —but it’s the percentages here that are telling. The most important variable for dining consumers is food (at 30% the most common response), but service and environment (and that means interior design) came in at 26% and 24%, respectively, and virtually equal in importance. Environ­ment also ranked above cost (21%). Powers’ study boils down to this: After food, it’s the look of your place—and, by association, how that look impresses guests—that matters.

In case you might still be thinking that design is pie-in-the-sky stuff, consider this: A growing number of global executives are now saying that design and the moods and impressions it creates has emerged as an indispens­able factor in the battle to differentiate one’s brand.

In 2005, Switzerland’s IMD MBA polled 707 professionals in the retail, automotive, electronics, and other industries in order to quantify the relationship between product/store design and customer spending. A whopping 89% said that design is “an essential way to make a lasting connection to customers;” 90% said it is a “discipline that top management needs to understand and champion.” Asked which companies exemplified the relationship between innovative design and brand equity, the only restaurant company cited was Starbucks, which joined Apple Computer and IKEA in their ability to “represent a lifestyle that goes beyond their products.” Added IMD researcher Sean Meehan, “The results… show a significant relationship between a company’s profit growth and market share and its strategic approach to design.”

Yet convincing evidence has also emerged that design alone still holds a subordinate role in the long list of goods that a restaurateur must deliver to the guest. And it probably always will.

In 1999, researchers Joanne M. Sulek and Rhonda L. Hensley from the School of Business and Economics at North Carolina State University published a paper called “The Relative Importance of Food, Atmosphere, and Fairness of Wait.” In it, they detailed the results of their study of an Irish-style, full-service restaurant in the Southeast, where the two surveyed 239 diners. The researchers wanted to know what mattered to guests enough to prompt them to either return to, or avoid, the restaurant in the future?

They distilled eight variables that pleased guests when they went out, including things like wait times and seating-order fairness. What was significant about the findings, however, was that, when the women focused on what specifically would encourage guests to make repeat visits, “only food quality was a significant predictor of customers’ intentions to return.”

If food is so important, why should any operator bother to change the burned- out bulbs in the dining room? Why care about design at all? Because the researchers also found that two other attributes contributed significantly to guests’ appraisal—and these two were wait times and interior atmosphere.

“In addition to food quality, the restaurant’s physical setting may also affect customer satisfaction and repeat-patronage intentions,” Sulek and Hensley wrote. “In a full-service restaurant, the atmosphere of the dining area involves greater complexity than any other aspect of the physical setting. The way the restaurateur expresses these characteristics helps to create an expectation of the dining experience even before the customer is served, [and] problems with any of these features can... cause [diners] to shorten their stays.”

And whether your restaurant looks like a bayou shack or the reception hall at Versailles, nobody can afford that.                                         

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