By Mike Davies

It photographs well. It wins design awards. But six months after the doors open there’s no-one inside.

What went wrong?

Many things feed into a great culinary experience. Not the least of which is the built environment. Why? Because from the front door to the loos your built environment shapes your customers’ expectations. Don’t deliver on the promise and you might just lose them.

Expectations are huge. Just how huge was demonstrated by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post whose story has become an urban legend. Gene asked virtuoso violinist, Joshua Bell, to play Bach on his $3.5 million violin in a Washington subway for forty-five minutes one morning.  While a good seat at the concert hall to see Josh cost $100, only seven of over a 1000 people in the subway stopped to listen. He made about $32.00. Time pressure was an influence here. But an ordinary guy playing a violin in a subway – no matter how good (or cute) he is – is not going to draw the punters the way a known virtuoso in a concert hall will. Expectations count.

Will your establishment live up to expectations?

Great bar and restaurant design is not just about decor, though this is important. It’s about how people move through space; how they’re invited to interact. Crouching on mats, perching at a bar, lounging on a sofa – all these things tell people how to behave and what to expect when they eat and drink.

Outside-in is about thinking through the customer experience before they put their foot in the door. Then delivering an experience that is consistent with the expectations you have created. Surprises – who really likes them? Unless they’re good ones. For the most part, we’re more comfortable with consistency and certainty.

And while our visual sense looms large, sound also profoundly affects our consumption experiences.

One of the curious findings from the psychology of dining is that louder music makes food seem crunchier. The results for perceptions of sweetness and saltiness are more equivocal. And we – and lab rats – drink more with louder music.

Noise is the second biggest complaint of restaurant goers according to American research. If you’re in for fine dining, you don’t want to spend the evening shouting to be heard. Or feeling like you can’t say what you’d like to because ten other people can overhear your conversation.

Does baffling noise mean forgoing your slick, hard surfaced skandi inspired restaurant? Or your carefully revealed brick work and seismic strengthening?


Innovative design can deliver the look you want and control the ambient noise in your establishment. Take, for example, Ombra in Wellington. The exposed building fabric and pressed metal ceiling might lead you to expect a noisy meal. But the design of the ceiling is punctured by tiny holes behind which sit acoustic blankets. It’s sound absorption without compromising the look.

Eyes and ears shape what we taste and how we feel about a place. Successful designing for the senses is no mean feat. Pulling together a restaurant, café or bar with that elusive je ne sais quoi that keeps the punters coming is the job of you and your architect. When you consider all of the elements, building and meeting customers’ expectations is nothing short of magic.


References and links


Noise and perception of food and drink

Spence, Charles (2014). Noise and its impact on the perception of food and drink. Flavour.


Violinist virtuoso experiment.

Gene Weingarten April 8, 2007. Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out. The Washington Post.