Food for the soul

Why diner loyalty is about more than food, setting or service

Opinion, Reports, Comment & analysis, Aidan keane, Keane

Design firm Keane’s founder, Aidan Keane, delves into the hazy world of defining ambience…

In the restaurant and bar universe, ambience — or atmosphere, whatever you wish to call it — is the very soul and personality of an outlet.

It is the attractor, the essence of what makes a customer feel comfortable and at ease. It is also what encourages them to come back and have some more.

But the true importance of this elusive ‘ambience’ is a very hard sell to any operator.

When you ask the dreaded question of what they are aiming for in terms of atmosphere, you get one of two replies: the first and most common is the blank stare of incomprehension.

The second is either “people will come here for the food” or “I’m spending mega bucks on developing the place, surely that’s enough” — both statements as daft as each other.

Equally ridiculous is the designer who believes that a certain look or edgy style will be enough.

Quite frankly, it’s all rubbish. Malls and streets are littered with beautiful, empty and often closed-down remnants of such belief systems.

If only good venue design was as easy as designing something physical, what an incredibly easy world it would be, but it takes more than that.

So the big question has to be what are the elements that deliver ambience? What keeps us engaged, interested and loyal to a particular place?

Well if it was a set number of things, everyone would be doing it, and by now you’d probably be able to buy an App for it too.

No, ambience is the great intangible; the thing that can make the man in the street compete with and beat those who have bottomless budgets and teams of advisors.

Ambience is a sensory affair — or an affair with the senses, more to the point.

Ambience is about setting the mood and tone. It’s about getting the place warm, filling it with life and allowing it to be itself.

Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, there are a few things you can do to get you close.

Here’s a little pre-flight check for you and your outlet:

Music: is it appropriate in tempo, volume and content?
Aroma: how does the place smell? What aromas is it giving off? Are they good?
Temperature: is the temperature right? Too cold or too hot and you’ve blown it.
Staff: are they upbeat and liberated, confident to talk and interact with your customers?
Management: in the mood or just in a mood?
Lighting: classroom or bedroom?

This check seems like common sense — and once you know what you’re doing, it is. But just look at how many places do not give even one of these pointers consideration.

People are, on the whole, too close to their businesses. Many would argue they have to be, but in reality it stops you looking at things in an objective manner.

Sometimes going to your place as a customer, perhaps with a friend to give their feedback, can really open your eyes to both the good and bad in your operation.

But remember: if you do decide to do it, take someone with taste and personality!

Aidan Keane is the founder of specialist leisure and retail design firm Keane. For more information, visit:

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