My restaurant is consistently too loud and guests complain that they can’t hold a conversation. What can I do to solve this problem?

This is a common issue among restaurateurs, as acoustics are hard to gauge in a commercial space before you move in. There are numerous factors driving this problem. Trends are leaning toward open expo kitchens and high interaction with employees. Additionally, the rise of fast-casual restaurants brings locations with higher throughput at lower ticket averages. To deal with the traffic, owners are opting for harder, more durable materials. All of this creates noise.

Here are a few ways you could approach the issue. I have listed them in order of easiest and most cost-effective to more difficult and costly.

  1. Incorporate furnishings that absorb noise, such as upholstered booths and banquettes, curtains and even sound-absorbing material glued to the underside of your tables. Some people believe these initiatives won’t work, which may be correct if they’re done individually. However, when done in conjunction with each other, it can have a significant impact. Acoustics are a complicated matter. Sound waves are continuously being deflected off the floor and furniture in your space. Therefore, it’s important to spread the sound-absorbing materials throughout the space at different heights and in different planes. This will help maximize the number of sound waves being absorbed.
  2. Add sound absorbing materials to your walls and ceiling. There are many ways you could approach this. You can purchase sound boards in unique colors and create an eye-catching pattern. For a more branded option, you can use fabric-wrapped panels along the walls. Architectural acoustical products can be hung in strips from the ceiling to absorb noise. Finally, you could use wood paneling with small holes through the material and place sound cloth behind it. Once this is attached to the wall, you’ll get the look and durability of wood, while still absorbing some of the excess sound.
  3. Purchase a commercially designed, sound-cancelling white noise machine. This is different than a general sound machine and can be set to mask the specific frequency of talking. The best ones sample the ambient noise in the restaurant and adjust the frequency of the white noise they emit to cancel out the sound. Instead of creating extra noise, they will actually cancel out the clamor. You can put these up in your ceiling and spread them out in the space. No one will notice the machines, but this will certainly help the noise level in your restaurant.

Need more information on acoustics in restaurants?

Steve Starr, president of starrdesign in Charlotte, N.C., is a nationally recognized leader in restaurant and retail design. While his insight and expertise span the hospitality industry, his focus is on branding, consumer behavior and the development process.

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