a crowded restaurant is good and bad. here’s why.

July 23, 2015
by marie murray

every year, karim goes to watch a huge parade in the center of his city. as soon as he parks his car and walks out into the street, he is surrounded by people everywhere. the mood is loud and celebratory and exciting, but also very overwhelming.

after the parade, he starts walking against the flow to find somewhere to eat lunch. the crowd is so dense that it can feel like he’s pushing against a stampede. his heart starts pounding and he feels overwhelming excitement. he can’t decide whether he wants to leave or stay in a place full of so much energy.

the story is a dramatic way of expressing how we humans perceive crowded environments. when it comes to food & beverage (F&B) spaces, science reveals that crowding has the same dual effect on patrons (guests). let me explain.

first of all, there are two types of crowding when it comes to public spaces. there’s human crowding, and then there’s spatial complexity or seating density. first, i’ll focus on human crowding.

patrons tend to feel more uncomfortable in a crowded public space than they do in environments that are less congested. however, studies show that when patrons are asked about why the venue is crowded, their responses are surprising.

they tend to attribute the crowdedness to good food quality, good reputation, and good pricing1. are you confused?  if guests are uncomfortable in crowded restaurants, why do they give such high reviews? the answer is fascinating.

crowded spaces cause increased stimulation, which can be exciting, but they also cause people to feel a loss of control over their environment. it’s basically the same contradicting emotions that karim felt in the middle of the crowded city on the day of the parade.

in order to regain control, studies show that people start justifying their choice of venue1. they quickly start to assume that the reasons for the crowdedness are good food quality, good reputation, and good prices. this makes them feel that they are in control because they can make choices, that they have chosen this particular place, and that it’s the right choice.

the next level of crowdedness comes from spacial complexity and seating density.

high seating density with moderate spacial complexity.

studies show that patrons respond negatively to spaces which are too dense or complex3. they prefer spaces that feel only moderately complex. complexity here refers to a whole range of details: closeness of seating, contrasts in colors and design, and even which floor you’re on. The higher the floor, the higher the perceived complexity.

moderate seating density with moderate spacial complexity.

so how is it possible to find the sweet spot? in order to produce the positive effects of human crowding without sacrificing patrons’ comfort levels, here are some points to consider:

  • aim for medium complexity. too simple is dull. too complex creates visual noise and chaos
  • use contrasting elements strategically to achieve mediate spacial complexity
  • furniture types contribute to spacial complexity. select a handful of furniture types and stick to them. then use finishes and colors to keep things interesting
  • sound also contributes to perceived spacial complexity. use sound as an additional variable to achieve the ideal balance
  • in the end, the best combination is a F&B space full of people, and an interior that’s complex enough to feel interesting but not chaotic and confusing

low seating density with low spacial complexity.

the good news is, crowding can offer the same thrill to your F&B business that karim feels on parade day in a big city. the challenge is to make sure that the sense of crowding comes from a space that feels full of people, and not from the overly dense furniture layout. and if in doubt, invest in filling up your space with guests, and the rest will soon follow.

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  1. ching biu tse, a., sin, l., yim, f. 2002. how a crowded restaurant affects consumers’ attribution behavior. international journal of hospitality management 21, 449-454
  2. ching biu tse, a., sin, l., yim, f. 2002. how a crowded restaurant affects consumers’ attribution behavior. international journal of hospitality management 21, 449-454
  3. yildirim, k., akalin-baskaya, a. 2007. perceived crowding in a café/restaurant with different seating densities. building and environment 42, 3410-3417

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