Thursday, October 7, 2021

Loud Restaurants - Why???

A restaurant can have great food but shitty ambience.

When we lived in the DC area, there were five young men whose mothers were real estate agents (so the story goes) and their Mom's financed them in a restaurant venture, just to get them out of the house.  They opened a restaurant called "Five Guys" and served sloppy burgers and hot fries and, well, within a few years, they had a chain of restaurants, and a few years later on, they sold out to a conglomerate for big bucks.  Guess they are back living with their Moms.  But that's not this is all about.

We stopped going to Five Guys early on.  Not only was the food not all that great (I don't like hamburgers that fall apart into a greasy mess on the front of your shirt, thank you) but they didn't serve beer.  Hamburgers and soda-pop - you can get that at any fast-food chain.  But the real deal-killer was the noise.  The place was lined with white tile and of course the exposed steel truss ceiling so popular today (and so cheap!) that it was like eating in an echo-chamber.

I wrote before about a barbecue chain we went to once (now out of business, I wonder why?) that was so loud that the people at the table sitting with us had to scream across the table to be heard.  We left the place deafened, with our ears ringing.  Yet so many restaurants are like this - in fact every "fast-casual" restaurant is like this.  Employees must have hearing loss after a few months.  Hello class-action lawsuit?

We recently went to Hattie B's Hot Nashville Chicken, which is a small chain of chicken shops.  We bring the camper and park around the block, because standing in the store, even to order, is painfully loud.  Better to get "to go" and eat in the camper.  I wonder if this is one reason why take-out has exploded in recent months?  It was so loud, I had to shout my order to the cashier and Mark and I had to sit in silence (our silence, not others') while we waited for our food.  Fortunately, they serve beer.

But it got me to wondering, why are these places so loud?  It is they just don't know any better?  They have no clue how acoustics works?  A simple placement of a few acoustical panels or drapes or even flags would dissipate and attenuate the sound somewhat.  I have seen some restaurants string a fishing line across the room, claiming it attenuates noise.  I doubt it works, but at least they are trying.

On the other extreme are places where the silence is deafening.  We went to a distillery "tasting room" in Lexington, and they had no background music playing and the place was like a funeral parlor.  What made it creepy was that any sound you made seemed amplified, and you felt very conspicuous there.  Just playing some soft music in the background would have made a big difference.

Acoustical design matters, and it is interesting how retail establishments ignore this - or perhaps use poor acoustical design on purpose.  The distillery with the deafening silence felt empty and cold, and it seemed like a failing business.  You know the feeling, when you go into a small store that is struggling and it is too quiet.   They need some ambient noise to make it feel less like a tomb.

On the other extreme are these loud places, and I wonder if the sound level is not by accident but by intent.  People like loud places as they feel they are exciting and something of interest is going on.  If the place is too quiet, well, it must not be very popular, right?  And who wants to go to an unpopular place?  People go to restaurants for reasons other than refueling (or should, anyway).  They want to go to the popular restaurant, because its worth is validated by the other people going there.  And a loud cacophony of noise - talking patrons - is a sign the place is hip and with-it and popular, right?

I think this is the thinking.  In these chain restaurants, nothing is left to chance - committees of people gather together in conference rooms to discuss every last detail, down to the size of the cocktail napkins.  Nothing is left to chance.  And many of these restaurant "groups" (such as the Darden group) own a number of chains, so they have a lot of experience at this.  So, I doubt the level of noise in these places is left to chance - it is by design.

(Oddly enough, this seems to bother me more as I get older and my hearing goes South.  Both Mark and I have tinnitus (probably from loud restaurants!) and have a constant ringing in our ears as it is.  It isn't just the loudness of the background noise, it is the particular frequencies which are particularly annoying.  Human voices, in cacophony, are the most annoying of sounds.  And of course, some people's voices - and laughs - are worse than others!).

But why make the level of noise almost painful?  And by the way, this is a problem in other retail venues - Walmart, for example, is quite loud.  I think the answer is, a sound designer sculpts the nose in an artful way to meet the needs of the environment. And noise is one way of creating the impression of excitement, inducing people to spend, and also moving your customers along.

A high-end restaurant, for example, may have a hushed feel to it, but on the other hand, there is the background murmur of conversation that you subconsciously pick up - realizing that others are there, and their presence validates your need to be there.  In less ostentatious settings, you crank up the volume more.  You want people to feel a celebration is going on.  You also want them to leave after eating, so you can flip the table and make more money.  No lingering over coffee and conversation here!

And so on down the line, to the fast-casual or fast-food restaurant, where the motto is (as posted in one New Jersey Diner) "Eat it and beat it!" -  the idea is to get your food, wolf it down, and get the hell out. And loud acoustics - jarring acoustics - is one way of moving patrons along.

And it ain't just restaurants - the Pentagon has been experimenting with (and using) sonic weapons to disburse crowds and rioters, as well as a means of psychologically torturing people.  The ATF blasted the Waco Texas compound of David Koresh with bad rock-and-roll music, at full volume, to try to shake loose the cult followers.  It largely didn't work, although I am sure it put them on edge.

Sound is important, acoustics are important, and none of this is by chance, I believe, in today's society, other than perhaps in small Mom-and-Pop places where no one bothers to think about acoustical design.  And sadly, today's architecture makes acoustics pretty shoddy. Most commercial establishments today are built along the same lines - a slab of concrete is poured not only as a foundation, but as the flooring.  Walmart recently made a big deal of scraping up the linoleum floor tiles from all their stores and then polishing the concrete slab as the new floor surface.  It's cheaper than a floor covering, and no one will sue you over a loose floor tile when they slip-and-fall.

So right off the bat, you have this horrible surface to walk on all day long, if you work there, and it reflects sound.  The rest of the building is little better.  Acoustical tile ceilings (note the name!) of the 1960's and 1970's have gone by the wayside.  Again, it is cheaper to simply leave the steel trusses exposed and then spray-paint everything black.   Cheap, again, but also an acoustical nightmare.  The roof is the new ceiling and it reflects back sound.  And the walls?  Concrete block, if they aren't some sort of steel paneling screw-gunned into steel studs.   You've built a perfect echo chamber.

Yes, you could put in some acoustical tiles or panels, but they get dirty over time and need to be cleaned.  Curtains, drapes, flags and other cloth items that would absorb sound also get dirty and are a fire hazard as well.  So those go by the wayside.

So perhaps that is how this all started - by accident.  But I think it continues by design - someone, somewhere, in one of those conference rooms, put on a presentation about acoustical design, sound levels, and retail sales.  And the bottom line was, in the restaurant with ambient sound levels above the threshold of pain, alcohol sales doubled over quieter venues.  Someone, somewhere, decided this.  It didn't happen by accident.

So.... another example of evil corporations manipulating us to screw us out of our last buck?  Nah.  Another example of how we let shitty things happen because we don't make better choices.  Loud restaurants exist because people go to them and don't think about the noise levels or complain about it (the best complaint of course, being to leave and never go back!).

It is like all this bruhaha over Facebook and Instagram being addictive or intentionally allowing and promoting hateful content because we click on it twice as much as "nice" content.  Yes, a shocking thing, that.  We go to a Jame Bond movie to see him punch some bad guy in the face, not to see him having a meaningful conversation about his inner feelings.  Human nature is ugly - we like conflict, fights, negative things.  Our entire history is a history of wars and conflicts, because historians don't consider peace as historically significant.

The irony is, people will post messages on Facebook decrying Facebook - rather than just getting off Facebook entirely.  Sure, they could go to an "other" social media page, but they don't.  And even if they did, it would likely turn into Facebook in short order, as they would click on the same negative stories as before.  And bear in mind, half the people click on negativity because they are negative people.  The other half click on them because they want to see what the negative people click on!  It is like this anti-vaxx thing - half the people are clicking on that crap because they want to say, "Can you believe people read this shit?"   Howard Stern made millions this way.

So before you decry "corporate greed" take a good look inside your own soul.  Yes, human nature is an ugly, ugly thing, even if life is beautiful.  We all take the low road - the path of least resistance.  And it is silly for someone to decry corporate malfeasance in a message "sent from my iPhone!"   But then again, most people simply don't get it.

Loud restaurants will continue to exist simply because we keep going to them.  And like I said, I think the sound level is intentional today - it forces people to leave in short order, which in a crowded popular place like Hattie B's Nashville Hot Chicken, is a good thing, during the busy lunch-hour rush.  And yes, I will still go there, whenever I am in Nashville, as it is a special treat - not merely a refueling station.

Using a restaurant as a kitchen isn't good for your pocketbook, your waistline, or your hearing!