Imagine eating at a restaurant where you feel like you are dining at the bottom of the sea, at the top of the rainforest canopy, or in the middle of a vineyard. Some culinary experiences, such as Sublimotion, feature virtual reality and digital projection technologies to transport customers into different environments. Other restaurants, such as O.Noir (where customers eat in complete darkness), deprive customers of one sensory input to enhance the others. These types of immersive dining environments are becoming more popular as foodservice operators look to elevate their experience and create a competitive advantage.
While it may not be right for every restaurant to become fully immersive with themed aspects, one insight from this trend is that these restaurants carefully consider sensory experiences. Engaging customers’ senses has the potential to create a unique dining experience and can be leveraged as a branding tool to attract and retain customers. The five senses of sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound all have an impact on customer experience in a restaurant setting. If these factors are assessed individually, they can be very powerful in collectively driving sales.
Customers generally assess a restaurant with their eyes before deciding to eat its food. Therefore, visuals are very important in a dining environment. They communicate your brand identity and create a desired tone. Graphics, digital content, and food photography can increase appetite appeal. Lighting and design elements create a visual experience and ambiance. Actually seeing food being cooked can also create entertainment and anticipation.
Customer thoughts related to sight
- Does this restaurant look like a place for me?
- Is it clean?
- Does the food look tasty?
- What kind of experience will this be?
- Does the seating look comfortable?
- Does it meet my need state? (i.e., looking for a social setting, romantic setting, or quick service, etc.)
Aromatic cues can play a large role in enticing customers into a restaurant. The smell of freshly baked bread or grilled meat are difficult to ignore. They also create a signature brand scent that will imprint into the memories of your customers to drive future behavior. Cinnabon, for instance, strategically places its ovens at the front of the store and heats up additional sheets of brown sugar and cinnamon to attract the noses of potential customers in the surrounding area. It is important to strike a balance between pleasant and overwhelming odor, however.
Customer thoughts related to smell
- Where is that delicious smell coming from?
- That delicious smell is familiar…
- Smells fresh and tasty…I feel hungry
How your food tastes is obviously important, but using marketing techniques such as sampling can give customers this sensory information before they decide on a purchase. Trying a sample of a restaurant’s food can be highly influential since it is an undeniable point of proof and can leave customers wanting more. Staff offering samples need to be friendly yet not too pushy to avoid annoying potential customers.
Customer thoughts related to taste
- I am not sure if I will like it…I will try a sample
- That sample tastes delicious…I am convinced
- This sample tastes better than I expected
Materials used at the table, from the feel of the table, to the comfort of the chairs, and even the texture of the plates and cutlery can all signal a specific brand experience. These haptic cues offer confirmation of a particular experience, for example a premium or an innovative feel. Take-out packaging is also a touchpoint to consider tactile brand expression.
Customer thoughts related to touch
- These materials feel comfortable
- My utensils feel unique and premium
- My glass makes my drink feel special
Auditory elements are also important to consider when designing a restaurant experience. Music choices can set the pace of the environment and influence customer behavior. If an open kitchen is part of your strategy, sounds of cooking will generate excitement. Bringing food to the table that makes a sound, such as sizzling fajitas, also creates added entertainment.
Customer thoughts related to sound
- Sounds like a fun place
- The music is calming, I will eat slowly and enjoy every bite
- The sounds of the food cooking is exciting…It’s almost ready!
All of these sensory triggers have the potential to catch customers’ attention and ultimately drive sales. Sensory experiences also link the menu to the environment, creating a more cohesive brand. We are all sensory beings, and focusing on speaking to each sense will create a deeper and more powerful immersive connection.