Restaurant Noise Levels Are a Big Problem, and America is Finally Sounding Off

In 1997, I was part of a management team opening a restaurant in Myrtle Beach, SC for Planet Hollywood, Inc. We were opening an All Star Café, a since deceased Sports Bar Concept created by Planet Hollywood. To be honest, the branding was mishandled and the concept never stood a chance, but that subject is for another blog. I remember all of us doing the initial walk through of the facility during the construction. The building was built from the ground up, which was very unusual for our company. Most of the stores were opened in buildings that already existed. This facility in Myrtle Beach was beautiful. It was very spacious, and shaped like an arena. We had to wear hard hats, as race cars and jet skis were being hung from the ceiling during our visit. The booths were shaped like baseball gloves. The oval dining room in the middle of the building was encircled by large screen televisions, all of which would be showing various sports programing run by a state of the art computer system. One large wall in the dining room was dedicated to several large video game machines. As we walked through the dining and bar areas, the architect was explaining their reasoning for different design features. He kept alluding to noise abatement. How noise was going to be a problem, and what design features were meant to keep the decibel levels at an acceptable level. I have thought about that walk through quite often lately. The reason?  The apparent death of noise abatement in modern day restaurant design.

When is the last time you had to yell in a restaurant or bar just to be heard? I bet it was recently. When my wife and I walk into new restaurants, we can barely hear each other from two feet away. And when I look around the restaurant, I see the reason why. High ceilings with the rafters exposed. The floors and walls are all solid surfaces, usually concrete, metal, or exposed brick, which seems to be all the rage the last ten years. And of course, the music is blaring. All these factors cause you to raise your voice, which causes other people to raise their voices. The trend seems to be, the noisier the better.

An article on the government run website It’s A Noisy Planet explains how harmful loud restaurant noise can actually be:

“Research shows that long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 A-weighted decibels (dBA) can cause noise-induced hearing loss. Signs of having been exposed to too much noise include not hearing clearly or having ringing in your ears after leaving a noisy environment. According to Restaurant Briefing, reviewers have noted noise level averages of 80 dBA or higher in restaurants around the country. (A typical conversation averages about 60 dBA). These noise levels can make conversations more difficult and put diners’ hearing at risk. In addition, having to speak over the dining room din could also put an unhealthy strain on customers’ voices. “

Tom Sietsema, a popular food critic for the Washington Post, puts restaurant decibel levels in his restaurant reviews. Many food critics around the country do the same. This trend started about ten years ago, and has grown. Guests have become concerned about this problem. And it is now a factor they want to consider when choosing where to dine.

Now, to be fair, this problem is not solely from restaurant design. Part of the problem stems from society becoming noisier in general. Urban environments especially have too many people, and not enough space. Mobile devices have also added to this noisy trend. And some restaurants want noisy environments. The owners believe it creates a lively atmosphere. And that it also increases their table turnover rate. My opinion on that, it’s a short term win, and a long term loss. People will come in, but not come back to such an environment. I worked for a GM at Planet Hollywood who cranked the music and kept the restaurant cold in order to move more people through per hour. The long term result, return business died.

Noisy environments are not healthy and are losing popularity quickly. Restaurateurs, you had better pay attention. There is a push back occurring. I just recently read a great comment on a tweet about restaurant noise on Tom Sietsema’s Twitter Account. The tweet and the comment both paint the picture. People are getting tired of the noise.

Sietsema’s tweet: “The poor server-in-training trailing her supervisor at one of the most interesting restaurants in town has my sympathy. It’s so loud — 80-plus decibels, the sound equivalent of a garbage disposal — she has to ask for everything to be repeated. Everyone is SCREAMING. For real.”

The comment:  “Doubt they serve food ‘interesting’ enough to bring earplugs”.

Common consensus is, they probably don’t.  All the comments on the tweet were similar. The public is tiring of the noise, and they’re letting us know. The number one complaint in a recent Zagat Dining Trends Survey? Restaurant Noise. There is a danger with this type of complaint. The guest will probably not complain to the management or owner, they will just not come back.

When I was training new restaurant managers, I would take them into the dining room and have them stand about two feet from me. Two feet is about the normal distance between diners at a table. I would then speak at normal conversation level. If they could hear me, the noise level was fine. If they could not, we would adjust the music levels accordingly. The only problem with this test is that you can’t adjust noise created by design. If noise is rattling off walls and rafters, there’s not much you can do about it in the moment. However, solution is easy, let’s bring sound abatement back to restaurant design. Lots of different design aspects can absorb sound: drop ceilings, curtains, pictures, carpeting, and padded seating to name a few. Most restaurants with noise problems can still incorporate some these aspects into their current design. It’s time to start designing for comfort again. Let’s keep noise where it belongs, in traffic jams, or the dish room. There’s a reason we put those rooms with those noisy machines in the back of a restaurant when we design it. Think about it.

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