“Eat and get out” is the motto of the Chicago ‘50s-diner-themed restaurant Ed Debevic’s. Most places aren’t quite so blunt about it, but at the most basic level, that’s what they want you to do.

Environmental psychology, also known as behavioral geography, which looks at how our surroundings affect our actions, has recently been applied to restaurants. This means people are studying (and manipulating) how we dine.

“You have to strike a balance between a happy guest and a guest that contributes to the financial well-being of the restaurant,” says Stephani Robson, a restaurant-design expert and a senior lecturer at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.

The ideal customer at a casual-dining restaurant (a place where the check total is typically between $10 and $30, and that sells booze) is one who spends a lot, then leaves quickly. That way, someone else can be seated. As it turns out, those two characteristics are inversely related. A party that feels comfortable and welcome will order more (and more-expensive) food but will tend to linger, while a rushed group will spend less time at the table but will also spend less money.

Uncomfortable chairs help with customer turnover
Tables that are close to the kitchen, or in the line of foot traffic, are typically a restaurant’s most profitable.
Warm colors tend to make waitstaff and diners move more quickly.
Unanchored tables arranged in the middle of the room make diners eat faster.

To reconcile this, one statistic that Robson looks at is spending per minute (SPM)—average check size divided by number of minutes spent at a restaurant. In a 2004 study, Robson and another Cornell professor analyzed the effects of different kinds of tables on SPM at a Phoenix-area Chevys Fresh Mex. She found that banquette tables, the ones against a wall with a bench on one side and chairs on the other, fared worst, with guests staying longer but spending the same amount of money. More surprisingly, she also concluded that “bad” tables (ones near the kitchen door or in high-traffic areas) produced higher SPMs, because people sitting there left more quickly but spent roughly the same amount.

In other studies, environmental psychologists found several subtle ways to turn over tables more rapidly. Fast-paced music tends to make both diners and waitstaff move more quickly, as do warm colors like red and orange. Overly comfortable furniture encourages longer stays, which is why casual-restaurant chairs and booths are rarely padded.

We feel more comfortable when there is something to “anchor” us in our surroundings, like a wall, a partition, or even a potted plant. Diners seated at unanchored tables, especially ones in the middle of the floor, will be less comfortable and will eat faster.

As social animals, we gravitate toward others, so a crowded-looking restaurant is more appealing than an empty one. For this reason, many restaurants are divided into separate sections that can be filled as necessary.

But that’s not to say high-end restaurants never engage in this sort of manipulation. The 42-foot-tall “wine tower” at Aureole in Las Vegas serves the same purpose as the fajitas at Chili’s. Flashy things like sizzling platters or dessert trays have been proven to entice people to spend. Adam Farmerie, whose design and architecture firm AvroKO has gained fame for its design of New York City’s Public, admits that after he heard the color red makes people want to eat and spend money, he “sorta snuck it in a little everywhere.”

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