Hospitality is the most complete creative challenge, period. Artists create for the eyes. Musicians for the ears. Perfumiers for the nose. Industrial designers for the fingers. But only in hospitality do we combine all these with taste to weave immersive, memorable experiences for all five senses.
I spend my time with operators creating menus, ops platforms, architecture, and brands—and I’m not sure how many of them fully appreciate just how amazingly creative they are. I have some perspective on this. At The Culinary Edge, I work with colleagues who seemingly leapt from the womb clutching a par inventory sheet. By contrast, I came to food and beverage only a few years ago, after designing everything else like brands, sounds, products, digital experiences, and environments. (But if I’m late to this party, I’m so glad I made it; hospitality is where it’s at.)
With a perspective earned from these diverse creative disciplines, what strikes me is how the best operators create with all five senses, all the time, intuitively. And yet, because it’s so intuitive, this practice of five-sense creativity can remain almost subconscious. So, exactly how our senses build our experiences is often hidden from us, and yet the impact to businesses can be huge. Here are a few of my favorite examples.
Sense of smell: We know that what we call “flavor” is more from our sense of smell than that of taste. So as foodies, we live by this sense. Brands do, too: How much of Wetzel’s brand equity is in the aroma of freshly baked pretzels wafting down the mall?
Aroma works for us and against us. A few years ago, we worked with a beloved full-service brand that was steadily losing traffic. Mystery shopping my first unit, I was floored by a “stale dishrag” aroma, so strong that I waited for my order outside. At the time, the corporate team told me it was a systemic issue due to servers spilling orders onto the carpets, and moved the conversation to what they felt were higher priorities. (A dedicated team has fixed the issue since then.)
Our sense of smell reaches more powerfully than our other senses into the emotional center of our brains. Aromas activate nostalgia, transporting us in time and space. Lavender relaxes us. Juniper energizes. Aroma physically motivates our guests—for good or bad—from the moment they cross our thresholds. And yet, do we give this as much attention as, say, our paper goods?
Sense of hearing: Quick, who’s in charge of the playlist in your restaurants? The staff? The Franchisee? No idea? If you know your playlist, go to the top of the class. If not, you’re not alone. I get asked about a thousand different aspects of designing a restaurant—but no one has asked me about their playlist. And they should definitely be asking someone.
One brand we worked with needed help engaging a younger demographic. The first unit I visited was playing Cream, Deep Purple, and other rock music from the late ‘60s. Now, I loved every track, but that was the problem; so did the (few) other guests who were mostly my age. The corporate team saw the disconnect immediately, and yet this happens all the time.
Don’t just take my word for it. Scientific studies show that our soundscape influences how fast or slow we eat, what we order, and how much. There’s a further connection with salt, sugar, and alcohol consumption. Matching the right soundscape with the right audience, brand, food, and occasion can transform your average check.
Sense of touch: Do you know how heavy your tableware is? Operators take enormous care with tableware—it can transform the appearance of value in a dish. But there’s a deeper impact it can make: How does it feel when you pick it up?
The research here is complicated and nuanced, but: if your tableware is heavier—and critically if it “looks” as heavy as it actually is—then this perception of weight and density causes guests to perceive the food itself as more “weighty” or “dense”; and perhaps, more “valuable” or “expensive”.
Sense of sight: We know the common wisdom of visual environment: bright, well-lit restaurants at lunchtime turn tables faster; conversely, dimly-lit dinner venues command a higher average check. But in these days of rightsizing the restaurant, where staffing, operations and floor plan are all being rethought, there’s an under-recognized visual aspect that dramatically impacts guests, staff and food: Should the kitchen be open, or closed?
I’ve spent much of this year on the road, seeking smaller footprint models that produce high volumes, and I’ve noticed many of these operate open kitchens. It makes for efficient use of space, but it goes deeper than that. Open kitchens also seem to come with happier staff.
A famous experiment set up a dining room and a kitchen in three configurations: (1) the diners could see the kitchen, but not vice versa, (2) the kitchen could see the diners, but not vice versa, (3) both diners and kitchen could see each other. Which layout do you think led to the greatest guest satisfaction? If you guessed (3), you’re right. But what’s more interesting is that configuration (2) came a close second. Yes, you read that right—it’s when the kitchen staff can see the diners that you make the most gains in diner satisfaction.
It’s the fulfillment of seeing the food being enjoyed that makes for happier staff, that makes for better execution, that makes for happier guests, that makes for higher volumes.
And that’s all we have room to talk about for now. I hope there is something here you can use, or debate. There has never been a better moment to create new hospitality experiences. Let’s relish our time.
Graham Humphreys has spent the last 20 years designing experiences to delight senses, fulfill unmet needs, and build businesses. Working with teams of diverse backgrounds has taught him an empathic, human-centered approach to design. At The Culinary Edge, Graham leads his team as CEO to invent the future of food & beverage, partnering with brands including Dunkin’, Red Lobster, Nando’s, McCain, and First Watch. Prior to The Culinary Edge, Graham learned about innovation at some of the world’s leading design firms, marshaling over 250 programs for organizations including PepsiCo, General Electric, PayPal, Nivea and Starbucks.