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All that racket a lose-lose situation for restaurants
By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published September 13, 2007
Readers responding to the diner-rated Zagat surveys list noise as the second-most problematic part of their restaurant experiences (second only to poor service). People hate airstrip-loud restaurants, yet they abound. When I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle, I took a noise meter to each review and the recorded decibel level was published at the end of each story.
Under 65 decibels: pleasantly quiet, can talk easily
65-70 decibels: the level of normal conversation at 3 to 5 feet or that of a normal piano practice
70-75 decibels: talking normally gets difficult
75-80 decibels: can only talk in raised voices (75-85 is the level of chamber music in a small auditorium, 80 decibels is the dial tone of a telephone)
80+ decibels: too noisy for normal conversation
Continued exposure to noise at 85 decibels or higher eventually can cause hearing loss, according to standards set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Current trends toward large-volume restaurants with high ceilings, hard surfaces and open kitchens exacerbate the risks.
One recent study found that patrons tend to spend a little less and stay a shorter time in a noisy restaurant. But in quieter restaurants, patrons lingered and spent 40 percent more on alcohol. Because most restaurants get a large percentage of their profits from alcohol, it stands to reason that lowering noise increases profits.
But how do you cut the din?
Scott Coverdale, a design associate at Performance Media Industries, a sound engineering company in Fairfax, Calif., said there are numerous ways to ameliorate a serious noise problem.
A simple plate of glass between the dining room and the trendy exhibition kitchen can minimize kitchen noise in the dining room yet preserve the drama of kitchen activities.
Carpeting on the floor, velvet- or velour-covered chairs and heavy velour drapes (velour has the most sound absorptive properties, that's why you see it in stage theaters) all help. But, Coverdale notes, "Drapes have to be pleated, not flat, and the further off the wall you suspend them, the better they behave."
Architectural finishes like wood paneling engineered to absorb noise can help. Acoustical absorber panels can even be disguised as artwork.
Coverdale also urges restaurant owners to consider their HVAC and plumbing systems; a loud blower adds noise. Exterior traffic noise can be muted with a vestibule or second entrance door or curtain. "There really is good science to fix this stuff, but as with many things it comes down to spending some of those restaurant profits," Coverdale said.
While OSHA representatives purportedly conduct regular noise readings at noisy venues, the fluctuation of decibel levels in restaurants makes it hard to police. Restaurants must police themselves, with the public's health and their own bottom line in mind.