Lou Trope, President LJ Trope & Co. LLC
Ambiance is one area where many hotel restaurants struggle; yet it is one of the most impactful components that defines the concept and solidifies the restaurant’s reputation. A lackluster and mundane ambiance, even in the best designed space, can easily undermine all the efforts of a talented culinary or bar team. When thinking about ambiance, most will say its lighting and music. However, it is much much more. When thinking about ambiance with regard to the guest’s experience, consider everything that touches their senses aside from taste – sight, sound, smell and touch and how it all works together to create a differentiated memorable guest experience.
Consider what does the guest experience when they enter your restaurant? Let’s start with lighting. The basics are lights are brighter during the day then darken as the evening sets in. Unfortunately, too many times a restaurant will have their lights as bright as a hospital waiting room in the evening. Usually when this is the case, it is because they do not have a dimmer system or know how to work it. If your restaurant does not have a dimmer system, try to turn off sections, use candles or bring in floor lights. Anything you can do to help soften the space and create some type of mood that matches your concept will be beneficial in the long run.
Also take a look at your bar. Are there pin spots on your premium bottles on your back bar or are your bottles hiding in the shadows? Is your bar a beacon as guests approach? If you do not have lighting on your back bar, consider installing a rail of pin spots or placing some battery operated tea candles or pop lights behind the bottles to illuminate the bar. Let the guest see those premium bottles.
As the server approaches the table what does the guest see? Do they see a stylish well-dressed informed energized person ready to engage in a meaningful experience? Or, do they see a person walking over in a loose-fitting, frumpy expected hotel restaurant uniform with the obligatory hotel name tag hanging off their ill-fitting shirt? Hopefully, it’s the first. Unfortunately, for some reason, many hotels are determined to take bright energetic servers and put them in the most repugnant uniforms that draw the energy out of them. They go from being energetic engaged individuals that were hired to make the restaurant outstanding to basic order takers. Unless the restaurant concept has a strong ethnic theme where a specific style of dress reinforces the concept, there should be no reason the service team should not be stylish.
When deciding on a uniform style, take the Shopping Mall test. Have the manager put on the final uniform selection and walk around the closest shopping mall for an hour to see how it feels. If they feel embarrassed and odd, just imagine how the servers will feel wearing it daily. Get the team involved in the selection process and spend the extra time to get the uniforms fitted properly. If the team feels confident about their appearance, that will easily reflect in the service they provide to guests and be a major contributor to your overall ambiance.
What does the guest hear as they get comfortable in your restaurant? The music playing should directly correlate to your concept and target guest. There is great latitude in this area and it can play a prominent role in defining your concept. Gone are the days when soft jazz was the unavoidable default for restaurants. It’s ok to play the Rolling Stones and Muddy Waters in a Steakhouse or Red Hot Chili Peppers and Twenty One Pilots in a hip urban Ramen house. It all depends on the strength of the concept and the target guest you want to attract. Based on your concept, the volume needs to be at the appropriate level. Some concepts may require a louder vibe while others more subdued. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to hear the music but not clearly hear the words.
I was speaking to a very talented restaurateur and he mentioned that each night in his restaurant they designate an “Ambassador of Vibe”. This person (could be a hostess, server or bartender) is responsible to ensure the right music is on for the right guests at the right volume and the lighting is right throughout the night. They are, in a sense, the host of the party. So if they notice it’s a consistently younger crowd for happy hour, they may alternate the music selection and change it as the crowd evolves during the evening to more dining centric. They own and manage the vibe of the space. It’s a brilliant concept and has applicability everywhere regardless of your concept.
Regardless of location, price point or positioning, all restaurants and bars must smell clean and fresh as the guest enters. There is nothing worse that entering a space and smelling stale beer or skunky drains. Many restaurants do an outstanding job of drawing guests in with aroma, whether it is a sweet smelling cinnamon bun, wood burning grill or roasting meats. All these tactics are extremely effective to set the tone and expectations for the guest. The last thing a restaurant should have is a manufactured scent machine that is not related to the food. A restaurant’s projected scent needs to positively reinforce the culinary experience they are going to receive or should simply smell clean and fresh.
Touch is one of the most underrated yet intimate ways we can communicate to our guest. When a guest is handed a menu, they immediately notice if the menu is pristine or not. If a paper menu is used, the weight and texture of the paper sends an immediate message to set an expectation of the experience. Is the menu printed on cheap copier paper that looks like it has been left in the rain or is it on a textured heavy-weight paper in pristine condition? If using a menu folder or book, is it spotless? Are all the pages in correctly? Are there smudges? All these little messages play a subtle role in your guests beginning to form an opinion if whether they will like your restaurant or not.
The same is true for the table top selections. Is the napkin correct for the concept with the right feel and texture or is it a generic napkin from the local laundry service? In some cases, it may be fine to use a generic napkin; but, it is to your advantage to reinforce your concepts’ attributes at every guest interaction. In addition, the items chosen for the tabletop – flatware, plate styles, glassware and service utensils – all have a huge impact on perception. It is important to invest time to find the right solutions for your concept. Be careful not to chase the latest trendy plate style because soon everyone will have it and in no time and it will feel very dated. Remember what looks great sitting on the back table may be a nightmare for the guest. Before committing to a shipping pallet of product, consider tabletop sizes, service style, meal flow and how the guest eats food from it. Consider your options and budgets before finalizing decisions and avoid going too deep in the latest trendy style because you may soon regret it.
Ambiance is a very large, complex and important component of any successful restaurant. What has been detailed above is just the basic blocking and tackling. To take it to the next level, the messaging throughout the restaurant from the copy on the menu, business cards, website design to bathroom signs must all work together to tell your story. Everything must work together and when the restaurant is busy, this can easily be overlooked.
Visit your restaurant for the first time again. Take it all in and observe your lighting, music and aroma. Do the servers look sharp and stylish? Are the menus pristine? Does the serviceware make sense? It all plays together to define who you are and the better you are at it the more it will positively affect the guests’ perceptions of your restaurant and reinforce the concept positioning. It’s ok, turn the music up.