Color plays as important a role as sound in building a restaurant atmosphere.
A major aspect of starting a restaurant is creating an overall mood or atmosphere. This usually means influencing a customer's senses so they are primed to have a positive experience in your restaurant. Part of this priming process is removing sonic trash from your environment, dialing up the right music, setting up the dining room in a way that reflects your brand, and building color into your space. This final aspect, color, can have a major effect on your business.
"Color can sway people and their behavioral actions – it's all about psychology," said Ashley Anastasia Howell, founder of Avid Creative, a freelance design firm focused on restaurants.
Various experiments have indicated that the color of a food item can impact how we taste it. The Journal of Food Science published a study where respondents easily identified the flavor of a drink they tasted when they could see its color. When they couldn't see the color, they had trouble identifying each flavor and even mixed up flavors. These findings illustrate the impact our sense of sight has on taste. Our eyes are judging and sending information to the brain about food before we take the first bite.
Regardless of how you approach color, it will have a certain impact on your restaurant. Rosalin Anderson, chief branding officer for international salad and wraps restaurant group Just Salad, said that color directly impacts a customer's experience.
"Strategic color is one of the most powerful tools for restaurants to use to convey an enjoyable dining experience," she said in an email. "The selection of the right colors is very important, as it can make diners feel a wide range of emotions from very energized to relaxed, and everything in between."
Colors to avoid
Blues and purples should give you pause when you're deciding how to brand your restaurant, build your dining room or design different plate presentations. Howell breaks down each color and describes how it will impact a diner's overall experience. She warned against using blue without a clear intended purpose.
"Blue is actually known to suppress appetite and reduces hunger," Howell wrote. "Simply put: [it's] the most unappetizing color."
In addition to blues and purples, restaurant owners should avoid using overly bright or neon-like colors, like bright yellow, orange or green. These can bombard the diner and create a rushed, anxious feel. Anderson said that it's important not to overdo your decor with overly vibrant colors.
"We avoid using high-energy colors, such as orange, red, neon colors, etc., as they vibrate to the eye and can be unsettling, especially with food," she said.
Color psychology can get a bit tricky, but the overall idea is that extremely bright, vibrant colors create a sense of urgency and speed to your restaurant that may go a bit too far and cause distress.
Know how to break the rules
As with any good design rule, there are some exceptions. Howell said that there aren't clear-cut right or wrong colors to use when building a brand or redesigning a restaurant. Instead, restaurants should focus on doing research and picking a color that builds up to an overall brand.
"I have seen some cases where odd colors are used in a restaurant setting and it is pulled off magically," she said. "Context is key … as long as the color is used in the right fashion along with complementary colors and imagery."
A perfect example of a brand properly using blue or purple is Just Salad, which features navy blue in its logo to give a relaxing and professional feel. "We use a saturated navy blue for our logo to further differentiate ourselves from our competitors that use a lot of green," Anderson said.
Another great example is The Taco Stand, a taqueria inspired by the taco stands of Tijuana. Julian Hakim, founder of The Taco Stand, said that vibrant colors help relay the cultural feel of the restaurant.
"Vibrant and lively colors paint a 'fun' place image in someone's mind," Hakim said in an email. "The Taco Stand intends to recreate what it feels like to eat in Mexico at a taqueria. It's casual, vibrant and fun."
Colors that may work well
While restaurants should look to avoid blues and purples, just about every other color – if used properly – can be incorporated to create an ideal restaurant experience. In the case of Just Salad, Anderson said that calming colors are ideal for a restaurant focused on a healthy lunch or dinner option.
"Classic colors will be timeless and elegant – soft whites, grays and taupes make for a good base, and then you can add one or two fun colors as an accent for contrast," she said. "We strategically use calming colors (gray and taupe interiors) to offset the ordering experience, which during the lunch rush can be hectic."
These colors denote elegance. If restaurants are looking for other good examples, Howell wrote in her Medium post that they should consider using orange.
"Orange encourages impulse and comes off to some as a comfort color. Orange typically stimulates all senses, which of course has a lot to do with the experience of a restaurant," she wrote. "If surrounded by the color, customers will eat, talk and spend longer periods of time [in the restaurant]."
1. Think about your brand.
The best thing you can do as a restaurant owner is think about your restaurant and how you want your customers to feel when they are eating there. Set a clear goal and think about how design, color and layout can get you closer to the feeling you want to evoke. Part of this process will be research, according to Howell. Arbitrarily choosing colors or design elements because you like them isn't always a good idea. Instead, think critically about how you want to be perceived by the public – this can usually be summed up in a few words or a sentence or two. Then do research to figure out what steps you can take to achieve that mood.
"Do [your] research and do not pick a color just because you like it," Howell said. "Colors can change meaning over different cultures, geographical areas and eras with various relevancy."
As you begin to think about color and how it will impact your restaurant design, try not to overdo it.
"There's a line to be drawn," Hakim said. "You can easily overdo it and saturate a place with unnecessary images and colors, which will lead to a place feeling like they tried too hard and have no concept at all."
Avoid this by doing the right research and building color into your brand, not the other way around. Color should accent a diner's overall experience; it shouldn't be the main event.
2. Consider other factors.
Color is only part of the equation for your restaurant, so be sure to think about how it will fit into your overall restaurant idea. This should include decor, location and other important factors.
"Your surroundings play a big role in how you feel. Being in a lively place with lots of color sets your mind up for a fun experience," Hakim said. "Have a clear concept in mind and execute it. It's easy to want to incorporate 100 different ideas and bring them all into one space, but that is dangerous. The key is in the details, and many times, less is more."
Once you have a clear strategy in mind, start incorporating different design elements into your restaurant and see how your guests react. Do your best to gauge their dining experience – such as by informally talking with them or conducting a survey.
"Testing brand colors can be tricky, but I highly suggest it," Howell said. "Test the waters, and if you have a certain color palette, try doing a test run of different colors."
As you try different design elements, remember that nothing is set in stone and color is only one factor in a guest's entire restaurant experience. Howell said she thinks it's important to maintain perspective when working on this type of change.
"I honestly don't think a color can make or break a restaurant," she said, "although I do feel there is always room for improvements to help your brand be the best it can be."
Leo Kremer, co-founder of Dos Toros Taqueria, said his restaurant is currently changing some of the design elements in its Chicago and New York City locations. Kremer emphasized approaching a redesign with a certain flexibility.
"You can test it, and if you paint your wall white and it's the wrong color white, you can repaint it," he said. "These decisions aren't set in stone … I think people feel like they make a decision and they're stuck with that result whether they like it or not, and that's not always the case."
While color is an important aspect of your restaurant and the customers' dining experience, your whole business doesn't hinge on it. If you're just starting out or thinking about changing your restaurant's interior or rebranding, be sure to do research and think critically about the look and feel of your restaurant. Color should contribute to an overall atmosphere. Achieving that feeling and showcasing that atmosphere should be your ultimate goal.