A major part of starting a restaurant is creating an overall mood or atmosphere. This means trying to influence a customer’s senses so they are primed to have a positive experience in your restaurant. Part of this process is using color appropriately in your space.
“Color subtly influences customers’ emotions, which is a significant driver of decision-making,” according to Kevin Huang, CEO of Ambient Home. “Knowing this, it makes sense to know which colors create certain feelings and use those colors judiciously in the appropriate areas of your restaurant.”
Various experiments have indicated that the color of a food item can impact how we taste it and how much desire there is to eat it. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that adding colors, such as red or blue, to photos of food was associated with a lower propensity to eat compared to food items in their original colors.
“The color of food not only provides information about the ediblity but also about the palatability of food,” the study said.
How color can impact your restaurant
“Color is an important part of the retail and restaurant experience and can impact your restaurant in a number of ways,” according to Allan McNabb, founder of Image Building Media. “Color can be used to attract customers. Bright, bold colors are more likely to get attention than soft, muted tones.”
McNabb added that color can help make the menu look more interesting and appealing. If you use bright colors, people will be more likely to order from it.
“Color can indicate what a restaurant is trying to achieve. For example, if you have a lot of reds and oranges in your restaurant, it might be because you want to create an atmosphere of celebration or excitement. If you have bright greens, yellow and blue items on your menu, however, this might indicate you are trying to attract health-conscious customers by using these colors,” McNabb continued.
How to use color in your restaurant
“There are a number of ways that color can be used in a restaurant to create a certain atmosphere or mood. For example, using dark colors can create a more intimate and romantic setting, while using bright colors can create a more fun and festive atmosphere. Color can also be used to highlight certain menu items or specials,” said Brandon Wilkes, branding expert and marketing manager at The Big Phone Store.
For example, Wilkes suggested using a pop of color on a menu or sign because it can draw attention to a particular dish.
“In terms of table settings, color can be used to create a cohesive look or to add a personal touch. For example, using a specific color scheme for the tablecloths and napkins can create a polished look, while adding a colorful table runner or place mats can add a bit of personality,” Wilkes said.
Wilkes went on to say a common practice is to use white as a base color for the walls and then use accent colors throughout the space with artwork, plants and decorative accents.
A study by ResearchGate also suggests that different dining occasions have different color needs. A dinner date with a partner showed a desire for a balanced color selection, with participants selecting mostly pink and blue hues. On the other hand, participants chose light orange as the preferred overall color for dinner with a family member.
Best practices for using color
Know what colors to avoid.
Restaurant owners should avoid blues and purples for company branding, dining rooms and plate presentations. Ashley Anastasia Howell, in an essay for Medium, broke down each color and describes how it will impact overall experience. She warned against using blue without a clear intended purpose.
“Blue is actually known to suppress appetite and reduce 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 emphasized.
Color psychology can get tricky, but the overall idea is that extremely bright, vibrant colors create a sense of urgency and speed to your restaurant that may go too far and cause distress.
Did you know? The color blue is an appetite suppressant because there are few truly blue fruits and vegetables in nature, so our minds view blue foods as unnatural, according to Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.
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,” Rosalin Anderson, chief branding officer for Just Salad, 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.”
Know what colors work well.
While most restaurants should 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].”
Think about your brand.
The best thing you can do as a restaurant owner is think about your restaurant and how you want your diners 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.
A big part of branding is consistency across the restaurant’s website design, social platforms and logos. Select a few colors that match well together and use them in the right places so those colors become associated with your restaurant. Some of the best POS systems also allow you to customize the color and design of what your customer sees when placing an online order, or checking out with a tablet at the table.
FYI: A MGH survey found that 77% of diners visit a restaurant’s website before they dine in or order out from the establishment. Of that group, nearly 70% have been discouraged from visiting the restaurant because of its website.
Consider other factors.
Color is only part of the equation for your restaurant, so 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 to 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, 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.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Post.