A recent study by RestaurantRx Consulting LLC revealed the five most important factors to dining customers on a scale of 1-10, and in order they were food quality (9.6/10), service (9/10), VIP treatment (8.9/10), and tied for 5th with scores of 8 out of 10 were value and atmosphere.
I may be biased (OK, I am), but I find it interesting that atmosphere, which can also be defined as ambience, presentation or environment, did not rank higher. Yet when thinking about my own dining experiences, I generally side with the study, with the caveat that the atmosphere of a restaurant definitely impacts all other factors in the top five, from the ability to enjoy your meal, to the ability to enjoy the service and ability to measure the value you receive from the dining experience.
Atmosphere can mean many things to the dining customer that appreciates great food quality. From the authentically-positioned "hole in the wall" taqueria to a five star restaurant, atmosphere deals with visual aspects of the environment, helping to top-off what our eyes see when the anticipated meal finally arrives. It's about soul, substance and authenticity.
Excellent design is at the heart of an outstanding atmosphere. It must support the authenticity of the foodservice operation and provide substance for the operator to deliver a soulful experience. Or, as former BusinessWeek staffer Jay Greene says in his new book, Design Is How It Works, "design isn't merely about making products aesthetically beautiful, it's about creating experiences that consumers crave."
From an equipment perspective, operators and consultants can enhance food quality by planning specifications correctly around menu functions and delivery styles. Of course, these things vary immensely depending on the dining protocol. However, all operators must look closely at equipment options to ensure maximum flexibility, energy savings, throughput and an ability to serve quality products. With service ranking second in this study, I suggest that equipment should be considered a powerful tool for assisting with efficient service.
Equipment can also add to presentation style by being on center stage, a la the exhibition kitchen. This means it's involved in socializing with the dining guest, and offering its own version of eye candy. Items such as a hand-stoked mesquite broilers, Mongolian grilles, or high tech combination ovens – to name a few – can produce quality menu items in an exciting way for the diners. Exhibition kitchens provide an opportunity to deliver better service, as they enable the chef to form a natural engagement with guests, while customizing meals quickly and personally.
We can't (usually) fool the public with poor quality food and expect great performance results from the restaurant by only emphasizing service and VIP treatment. Yet we have all seen the greatest food in the world ruined through poor cooking methods (such as plates that have sat too long under a heat lamp and are blazing hot when delivered to your table, or food that is under-cooked) and poorly specified equipment, or from a noisy environment.
Sometimes, even when a prepared perfectly, other issues related to a restaurant's atmosphere can ruin the meal. Therefore, the atmosphere, and by connection the ambience and presentation, is really the glue that binds an enjoyable and memorable dining experience.
Now I am off to my local taqueria, which seats its customers at fifteen dollar chairs, offers overused flatware and china, and requires me to sit next to people I don't know. However, I will enjoy great, authentic food, plus reasonable, but appropriate, service and an occasional smile from the owner, acknowledging me as someone special.