Today’s diners are an all-or-nothing crowd. The abundance of food delivery options and meal kits mean the rich, hard-to-achieve flavors of a restaurant can be enjoyed at the kitchen table. It’s harder to justify a trip to a sit-down eatery when the fare comes straight to your door for about the same price. Restaurants, in turn, are evolving physically and virtually to show customers that a trip out is worth the trouble – more than worth it. Instead of serving meals, they’re are serving experiences.
Engagement begins before customers ever walk through the door. Restaurant websites have jumped to the forefront of graphics and user experience, leading design trends and snagging prestigious Webby and CSSDesign awards. Responsive scrolling, ultra high-def photography and video, sound design – even loading icons take pages to the next level. The sites go beyond booking tables and viewing menus – now a restaurant’s character is distilled into pixels, sharing tantalizing morsels of what’s to come. It’s a difficult balancing act, but bars and restaurants like Paris’s Inavoué and Brass Union in Sommerville, MA prove it can be done. Both pages are exhibit artistic, interactive information, illustrations, and photography – not to mention speedy loading.
Taste is an obvious sense for restaurants to seduce, but increasingly, venues are making highly intentional decisions to woo the remaining four senses. Penta-sensory venues appeal to sight, sound, smell, and touch as well. Perhaps most famous in Shanghai’s Ultraviolet, by Chef Paul Pairet. Wall and table projections, scent diffusers, and a surround sound speaker system change the one-room restaurant’s environment with each course, illuminating a dish’s components and heightening diners’ awareness of each bite. At Alinea in Chicago, Chef Grant Achatz uses lights, fog, and even the art from the walls and ceiling of the restaurant to evoke customers’ distinctive memories and childlike wonderment throughout the four hour meal. First Airlines in Tokyo harnesses technology to its fullest extent, offer virtual reality food tours of several international cities, complete with VR airplane flights to the destination. On the other end of the spectrum is O. Noir in Toronto, where diners eat in complete darkness, heightening their senses beyond sight.
There are more than a few restaurants in extreme places, from dangling off cranes to the edges of volcanoes. But only a handful of these extreme venues offer fare to match their stunning scenery. At 5.8 Restaurant in the Maldives, Chef Bjoern van den Oever knows some customers arrive expecting a sub-par meal. The restaurant is, of course 5.8 meters (about 19 feet), under the surface of the Indian Ocean, posing a variety of logistical challenges. “It’s a lot of pressure,” van den Oever told CNN’s Karla Cripps, “You have to keep up with the surroundings, you don’t want people getting bored by the food. So we have to always keep the food exciting as well.” He serves a seven course gourmet meal to each of the 10 seats in the tubular glass case, built atop a carefully constructed coral reef.
Other spots embrace a thematic pop culture approach, drawing in loyal followers and fanatics to sample specifically crafted food and drink. Themed restaurants like Forrest Gump-inspired chain Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. or The Central Perk, Beijing’s ode to Friends, are challenging to maintain as popular interests wax and wane. Many customers come to take in the spectacle, snap a few pics for Instagram, and don’t return. Still, several spots like The Lockhart in Toronto (Harry Potter), Milwaukee’s Safe House (Spies), and Brooklyn’s Action Burger (Sci-Fi, Comic Books) stay afloat with help from constantly lush, changing menus and decor. Bars and lounges tend to have better luck in the thematic realm, especially pop-up venues that offer patrons entry into fantasy worlds or bygone eras – with portals open for just a few weeks. Chicago’s pop-up bar scene is thriving, with limited time offerings of everything from Stranger Things to Women’s History to Rick and Morty.
Social media feeds are rife with culinary content – if you’ve seen one split bagel shot, you’ve seen them all. When bars and restaurants create intentional experiences for their patrons to capture and share on social media, it’s not only exciting for clientele but also a powerful marketing boon for venues. An interactive experience creates potential for user-generated content, giving new life to feeds full off overdone food shots. A Georgia Tech study found that photos with faces get nearly 40% more likes than those without. Gen-X, Millennial and iGeneration consumers thrive on sharing their experiences through Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, and savvy businesses capitalize on this habit through experiential marketing. Themed murals subtlety designated for photo ops (see Parlour Pizza), TouchTunes jukeboxes, custom Snapchat filters – even complimentary WiFi are all ways to encourage customers to engage virtually.
Word of mouth is a powerful form of promotion and remains an even more essential tool in the today’s challenging hospitality scene. When a customer leaves a meal or drinks with each sense saturated in the excellence of the experience, they’re far more likely and able to share tantalizing, multidimensional memories with peers. Creating meaningful interactions between patron and venue is no simple task, but results in an engaged client base, resilient identity and signal legacy.
Cover photo: Baptiste & Bottle Chicago
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