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Zagat Q&A: Advice From The Restaurant Psychologist

Dr. Stephani Robson is Senior Lecturer Emerita at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. Her areas of expertise include hospitality design and development, design and environmental analysis, and environmental psychology. She describes herself as a “restaurant psychologist” due to her multidisciplinary approach to helping the various aspects of restaurant design and operation work together more smoothly.

What does it mean to be a “restaurant psychologist”?

I’m really interested in how to make people feel great. And that’s what the hospitality industry is like. It’s a relationship business. And so my area is, how do you use the physical environment to create those great feelings? If you get the great feelings, then it translates into productivity and profit for the operator.

When you first talk to people in the restaurant business, how do you bring them around to your ideas?

Usually I only have to make the case by saying, “Do you think you’re getting the maximum benefit from the resources you’re putting into your restaurant?” Everybody says no. That’s an easy one. And then I ask, “What are your top three resources?” And they all say the same thing, “Well, they’re food, labor…” And then they kind of vacillate.

So I say, “Your number-one resource that you are bringing to the table is space. Everything else other people are bringing to the table. Your resource is your space, so we’ve got to make the best use of that space.” And when you start working backwards from space, you can then begin to say, “Let’s focus on more engineering in the front of house and more psychology in the back of house.” Especially when you can demonstrate that this approach is going to show financial benefit.

Because these are businesses—these are tough businesses. So being able to demonstrate that these changes have an immediate, beneficial effect usually gets people on board. But there are a lot of people who it’s tough to make this argument with. They still think of restaurant design as being aesthetics in the front and factory in the back.

So when someone from a more traditional background resists a holistic view of restaurant design, what do you say?

Then I’m really naughty. I just say, “Okay, what’s your spend per minute in the front?” And they never are able to answer because they don’t have that data. The spend per minute—as un-hospitality a metric as that sounds—that’s the key measure of the value you’re getting out of your asset, which is the space you have.

The spend-per-minute concept was conceived together by me and my Ph.D. advisor and friend, Sherri Kimes, an expert in restaurant revenue management. We came up with this metric because restaurants think mostly about check average. If they’re really paying attention—if it’s a table-service restaurant—they’re also thinking about how long the guest is at the table, because they want to get so many turns a night, et cetera.

If the restaurant is quiet and people are not on a wait, then you want guests to stay a long time. You want them to order an extra drink or have a dessert. But when there’s a wait, when there’s a line out the door, it’s more profitable for the restaurant to turn that table.

Check average or guest duration alone don’t help manage both those situations effectively. So we just combine them together into spend per minute. Let’s measure that and let’s see what you’ve got, and let’s see if there are ways we can improve it.

But you don’t want to make changes at the expense of the guest experience, right? There’s no point in creating this incredibly profitable machine that nobody goes to more than once—although we know restaurants that have done that. Lots of them.

Can you give an example of a way you improved a restaurant’s spend per minute?

At Adda restaurant in New York, they had a large high-top table in the window. That’s really not the best way to use your window. But they were tight for space, and they wanted to get as many seats in as possible, like so many restaurateurs.

We manipulated the seating a little bit, measuring spend per minute before and after. We actually lost seats in the process of making this seating change. I said, “If we change this from one large high-top that seats six to two small deuces, you lose two seats but you’re going to get more revenue because we’ll make those better and more appealing seats.” And that’s exactly what happened. We actually could show financially that they made more money.

The high-top table that formerly took up the window at Adda restaurant in New York. Robson suggested replacing it with two two-person tables, which improved overall revenue. despite offering less seats in total Photo: Emily Schindler.

What are the first things that you look at when examining a restaurant space for possible improvements?

The first question I always ask them is: “Who’s your guest and what do they care about?” Most restaurateurs think of their guests demographically. They’re like, “Well, we get a lot of women.” I don’t care about the demographics as much as I care about the psychographics. Usually by drilling down into that, I can have a better understanding of what kinds of interventions might be beneficial.

I also ask for their point-of-sale data for a month or two, and the seating plan for the restaurant. If they have anything at all, it’s a very sketchy plan that you see at the host stand where the host is saying, “Yeah, put them on Table 22.”

But if I can get an idea of the seating layout and what numbers are assigned to which tables, then I can go into the point-of-sale data and run an analysis to show which tables are performing well, which tables are not, and which tables are being underutilized.

We do this crazy thing with hosts in the restaurant industry. We put our least experienced person on the door. That person not only is the guest’s first impression of the restaurant—they are controlling the pace of the kitchen.

Two weeks ago, I was in New Orleans. I went to brunch at Commander’s Palace, because you have to. I had a wonderful experience. I really enjoyed it. They have career servers there because I’m sure they make lots of money, and they’re very good at their jobs. We were seated, and then a couple of minutes later, people on either side of us were seated. The servers were really struggling to keep up. The server came to our table at one point, and as he was reaching over for something, I said, “I’m really sorry that you got slammed with three tables all at once.” He looked at me like, “Thank god you understand!” But that’s the host’s fault because they’re trying to balance the stations.

I can look at a restaurant’s point-of-sale data and say you need to change the mix of tables that you have because you have more four-tops, but you don’t have that many parties of three or four. Or you need more deuces, or you need more whatever it is. Often it’s as simple as making a tweak so that you’re not losing capacity on those seats.

Restaurateurs and their architects often struggle to put in as many seats as humanly possible because the thought is, “Let’s maximize the utility of the space.” Sometimes that can backfire because if the tables are too close together, the guests are unhappy. They may not say they’re unhappy, but it’ll come out in other ways.

That seems like the point where you transition from analyzing the data to analyzing the psychology of the experience.

Just looking at the data says one thing, but that’s why I have to understand who the guest is, why they are coming, what they care about, and what kind of experience they come in for. If this is a restaurant that caters to groups of tourists in New York and they’re coming for one meal, then pack them in. It’s fine. It’s part of the New York experience.

But if the goal is something different, you need to design for that. There are many, many architects who get this, and there are many, many architects who do not. Architects are good at making restaurants look great, but it is the rare architect who understands how restaurants work.

Has the pandemic affected how restaurants work, in your view?

Let’s start with the front of house, because it hasn’t changed as much as you might think. People have always wanted to feel protected and safe when they are not in their home turf. That’s deep in our DNA. We always like to be separated from others. We like to be in a corner. That’s why people love booths. You feel like you have a little space.

The pandemic has emphasized that. What some restaurants did in response to the requirement to get more table spacing was to take out every second table. So you had these tables floating in space with tons of room around them. That’s actually less psychologically comfortable than having a plexiglass separation between each table, because we like to be in tight, cozy environments when we feel a little uncertain or threatened.

In the pandemic, the restaurants that got it right either already had booth seating and were able to add plexiglass separations between the booths, or they did a good job with outdoor seating. What I mean by that is the tables placed up against things. People like to be up against some kind of physical attribute when they’re in a restaurant. A table floating in the middle of a dining room is no fun unless you’re a big group.

One of my favorite words is “thigmotaxis,” which describes animals’ tendency for wall-seeking behavior in open spaces.

Humans are the same! I don’t know that word and I should, because it’s spot on. The thing that made the outdoor seating work so well is because restaurants were forced to put tables up against things because it was so narrow. You had the width of a parking spot. Restaurants built these low walls and put planters on them, and then put tables up against them. Well, that’s a recipe for happy guests because they feel like they can control their personal space.

The pandemic heightened that desire to feel protected and safe—you had your own little bubble of space. Restaurants that were able to provide that, with booth seating or really well-planned outdoor seating, did just fine. I mean “fine” in a relative sense. I don’t want to downplay how hard it’s been for everybody.

In the back of house, there’s fewer staff. That’s really been the bigger issue. How do you ensure that the people working back there can do the job of two people—because they’ve had to do that—but still feel like they’re valued? Restaurateurs who have worked in a kitchen decide they want a station for frying and a station for sautéing and a station for this and that. And I’m like, “Okay, that’s fine on Saturday when you’re slammed. But on a Tuesday, when you’ve got one person doing both the grill and the frying station, you’ve got to design those so that one person can handle it and they are comfortable doing so.”

That requires understanding the physics, but also understanding the thought process of the person working the line. Again, a lot of people who design restaurants and back of house haven’t worked a line before. So you have to walk them through it. And a lot of the people who work in back of house are shorter than average, so you have to design for that. You have take into account what’s going to make this person feel valued. And by doing that, we make it comfortable for them. We make it safe for them. By doing those things, you can get through stretches where your labor is strained.

There are all kinds of implications, because there are also code issues—what equipment is happy next to each other, and what equipment really isn’t happy next to each other. So you’re juggling ergonomics, and fire safety codes, and the difficulties of what kind of items are being prepped. You’ve got to really know what’s happening on that menu. If you’re using a fryer, what are you using it for? Is it for things you’re picking out one at a time with a pair of tongs, or are you dumping stuff in like fries or arancini? If that’s the case, it’s a whole different setup. You’re constantly juggling physics, logic, psychology, and ergonomics.

How would you advise someone to design for a positive, safe, productive hospitality experience for both customers and staff, given everything that’s happened though the pandemic?

It’s going to sound kind of Pollyanna-ish, but go small. Think about the restaurants that have always had regulars. I’m going to use the Cheers analogy. The idea of a place like Cheers is that it’s an extension of your own living room. What allowed a place like the fictional Cheers to be successful was two things—it was small, and the owner-operator was there. The restaurant should be small enough that you don’t feel like you’re just one of many people in the room. We know from all kinds of psychology that the more people there are around, the less civil people become.

Small and personal. That’s how restaurants were until Joe Baum in the 50s. I won’t lay it all at Joe Baum’s feet—he was a Cornell grad, after all—but there was a move towards bigger, more impersonal spaces from his time onward.

If it were up to me, the restaurant of the future would be the bistro that we were doing in the 1880s—40 or 50 seats, with the owner, manager, and two or three people in the back of house, two or three people in the front of house, and a very neighborhood-style orientation. In cities, the challenge is real estate. The spaces aren’t designed for this. The spaces are too big. But think about your favorite neighborhood restaurant. I don’t think it’s a 200-seat Applebee’s.

If you can design it right, you can make money on 40 or 50 seats if you’re selling alcohol, or you’re doing a lot of takeout. The way to make people civil is make them feel less anonymous.

Have you worked on designing restaurants from the ground up, putting all your principles into practice?

Oh, absolutely. Right now I have a client who has two restaurants and wants to start a third. Based on what we’ve learned from the two restaurants they have at the opposite ends of the spectrum—one is very small, like 20 seats, and one is about 130 seats, and I think it’s too big—we’re trying to do the whole Goldilocks thing and find out what is optimal. We’re using hard data, but I also just go to the large restaurant and sit and watch what’s going on.

If I can’t get there, because it’s away from where I live, I watch the security footage. That’s how sad my life is. I sit home and watch restaurant security footage with a cup of tea as the snow falls. You could hear the sad music in the background. I could just see the cinematographer going, “Let’s dial down the color and make it kind of gray.” The weather has changed, the calendar is flipping, and she’s still watching security footage.

But I’ve been trying to use what we’re learning so that the third restaurant, we hope, will be the sweet spot.

What strategies and practices have you observed restaurants doing in the pandemic that seem the right ways to handle this atmosphere of stress, upheaval, and uncertainty?

What’s striking are those restaurants that have been completely candid with their guests and treated them like they’re part of the experience. It’s getting back to the owner-operator thing. They don’t put a sign on the door that says, “Hey, we’re short-staffed, don’t be an ass.” Instead, the guest arrives and they say, “We’re so glad you came out tonight. Thank you so much. We’re running a little behind tonight. We’re going to send something out for you just to get you started.” It could be two pieces of cheese. I don’t care. But it’s a way of acknowledging they’re happy that the guest is there.

If you’re in the hospitality industry, that’s not a hard thing to do. We’re happy to see people. That’s how we’re wired. It lets guests know that A, you acknowledge the situation is suboptimal, and B, you’re going to do everything in your power to take care of it. You’re going to give them a gesture that shows you care about them. This is the Danny Meyer mantra—hospitality means you’re on the guest’s side. By understanding what your guest cares about, you can be much better at being on their side.

In the pandemic, people care about going out to eat because they can’t stand being in their home anymore, and they have to get out for something that’s not like home. They want to know that you are thinking about their safety and their well-being. And they also want human interaction, like, “Please talk to me!”

That’s why at these places that have kiosks that you order from, and you pick up food from a little cubbyhole—my whole body just collapses, because that’s not how humans are. A lot of people think, “This is the wave of the future” and “ghost kitchens” and blah blah blah. And I’m like, “No, no, no. That’s not how we’re wired.” That’s an engineering solution to a psychological problem.