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Using Light to Build Foodservice Brands and Drive Traffic

Light. It's all around us, regardless of whether it is manmade or natural. It's the way we see. It's how we live.

In the restaurant world specifically, light is the one element that transcends both the front of the house and the back, though it often goes unnoticed. And sometimes that's precisely the point.

"Light defines the experience, and it is something we have to consider in everything we do," says Derry Berrigan as part of a presentation during the first-annual International Foodservice Sustainability Symposium, held May 24–25 in Chicago. Berrigan is chief innovation officer at Light Think Studios, Inc., a sustainable lighting and consulting firm. She has helped big name clients — like McDonald's, KFC and Taco Bell — as well as smaller restaurants and foodservice operations spruce up an interior space, enhance staff morale in the kitchen, and even boost traffic during a non-peak daypart using lighting as her primary tool.

Lighting deserves and should have the same consideration in an overall budget as foodservice equipment or other capital needs. "Lighting impacts everything and everyone," Berrigan says. "It's about your brand image and marketing. It impacts energy use. It impacts how your customers and employees feel in a space."

In other words: Be reasonable when it comes to lighting but don't be cheap or risk damaging employee and customer satisfaction and the location's overall image.

Systematic Design

As is the case when specifying HVAC systems, consultants should also apply systematic thinking to lighting. After all, Berrigan says, lighting supports the architecture and design of a foodservice operation, which collectively help communicate the concept's brand promise. "Lighting is real," she says. "It is about creating something that will draw people back time and again."

Berrigan breaks down systematic, sustainable lighting design as a three-part system: application, technology and control. Application refers to the individual rooms and spaces in an operation that all have their own characteristics, people, requirements and needs. So, while Berrigan thinks of the big picture she'll start a new project by breaking down parts of the operation and considering each room separately. "Just like you design a bathroom differently than storage, you use light in different ways depending on what space you're in," she says.

When it comes to technology, it's all about selecting the right bulbs and lighting sources for an application. Or it could mean going with natural light in certain spaces. Different lighting sources have different color schemes and effects as well. For example, fluorescent lights help us see blue hues better but because our blood is red fluorescents have a tendency to make us look purple-bluish so they're not as useful for highlighting people, according to Berrigan.

Incandescent lights, however, have a red tone to them, making them better suited for a service counter or above tables in dining spaces where people are facing each other. It's also important to select the right lights based on what types of food a foodservice operation serves. "Lighting is a system. It's all interconnected," says Berrigan, who adds that saying one type of lighting is generally bad or better than another would not be accurate.

After technology, Berrigan will deploy control, setting up systems that automatically regulate light switches and the amount of light in a space during different times of day. Doing so helps create the desired ambiance, and it can even help boost certain dayparts.

Customer-Centric Lighting

Above all, it's important to understand that first and foremost you are designing for people, Berrigan says. Design should be people centric, both for customers and employees. Aside from understanding the budget and what is being illuminated, it's vital to understand how you want people to feel in the space. Understanding that ties into such factors as: What are the demographics of your customer? What is the brand image you're trying to create? Do you want a warm, casual feel, or a sophisticated, refined one? Do you want an earthy feel or an edgy vibe?

After all, Berrigan says, lighting is an aspect of design that both invites people into an operation, makes them want to stay, and eventually come back. The right lighting can also help boost employee productivity and satisfaction. "Understand that as a shift goes on, workers get tired and eye fatigue can set in," she says. "You want to make jobs more comfortable so you're not exhausting your staff." That goes for the front of the house, but is just as important in the back of the house.

In the kitchens, if possible, allow for more natural light versus harsh overhead lighting during the day. Many newer buildings have more windows and skylights than ever before. Plus, natural light is an obvious energy-saver. "Lighting does it all — it can stimulate dollars on the front end and reduce operating costs on the back end."

Enhancing Dayparts

Enhancing dayparts through lighting is "about inviting the customer into an experience, and also how you stimulate sales and generate profits," Berrigan says.

According to Berrigan, there are two types of lighting: persuasive and commodity. Persuasive lighting evolves with the customers' needs as the day progresses. In other words, rely on more natural light around mid-day, and switch to softer light in the evening hours.

Examine the peak hours of the business day, both in terms of service in the front of the house and in terms of production in the back. If an operation serves mainly a lunch crowd, use warm and inviting lighting as the afternoon progresses to bring people in for dinner. If it's breakfast you're going for, work with natural light and other cheerful lighting, if that suits the space.

Commodity lighting, however, stays the same no matter the time of day. "Commodity lighting is also known as being cheap and bright," Berrigan says.

Energy-Saving Opportunities

Another advantage of using persuasive lighting? It can save 78 percent or more on energy costs, according to Berrigan . That's an important consideration if you consider some statistical models say by 2030, electricity consumption from lighting will increase by 80 percent. Foodservice operators have the chance to make a difference.

Again, this is where the control aspect of systematic lighting design comes into play. Allow for more natural light. Keep lights on at certain times and in certain areas when needed, and turn them off when they are not necessary to properly illuminate the space. Invest in solar panels if the municipal codes allow it. "Using design strategies are just as important as the technology," Berrigan says.

Better management of lighting is another way to save energy costs, aside from switching to LED lighting and other energy-saving bulbs. Over-illuminating or "light pollution," as Berrigan says, not only looks bad, it uses too much energy. So think about areas where you don't need to illuminate every square inch. Parking lots are a good example. They should be lit so the customers and employees feel safe but they do not need to light up the evening sky.

The conversation about sustainable lighting solutions tends to focus solely on LED light bulbs and natural light. But the right lighting, both in terms of people satisfaction and energy saving, comes from a big picture approach with as much analysis as any business management or design consulting job. It comes from analyzing customer demographics, brand and messaging power, peak production hours and goals, employee needs and behavior, kitchen layout and more. As it is, lighting truly is everywhere.

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