When evaluating a restaurant, the quality of food is not like other factors considered — it has a special status. The same goes quite as much for other food establishments like coffee-houses. The customers or patrons may trade-off several factors which include the food, service, venue, price and location, yet food quality usually gets a much greater weight than the other attributes, suggesting that the decision process is practically not fully compensatory. The quality of the food, its taste and how much we enjoy it, is a “pre-condition” to dining at a restaurant. However, the balance with other attributes is important; in some cases, failure on those other attributes can be detrimental to the willingness of consumers to return to a restaurant or a coffee-house.
Some coffee-houses effectively function as ‘coffee-restaurant’ establishments by serving meals of a variety of food items suitable for every time of day (from eggs, salads and toasts to soups, pasta, hamburger or chicken-breast schnitzel with supplements).
Suppose that Dina and Mark, a fictional couple, are dining at a restaurant and find the dishes served to them being well-prepared and they enjoy very much the food’s taste. However, they are very unhappy with the sluggish service they get and inappropriate answers of the waiter, and feel the atmosphere in the restaurant is not pleasant (e.g., too dark or too noisy). The experience of Dina and Mark can be greatly hampered by factors other than food. How superior should the food be for our diners to be ready to tolerate bad service or a place they do not feel comfortable to be in for an hour or two?
On the other hand, Dina and Mark would likely expect the food (e.g., a dish like ‘risotto ai funghi’ [with mushrooms]) to uphold to a certain gratifying standard (i.e., that the ingredients are genuine, the texture is right, and the dish is overall tasty). If the food is not perceived good enough and diners do not enjoy it, this takes out the point of considering dining at the restaurant altogether. But if the food is good though not so special or great, yet the patrons Dina and Mark feel the staff truly welcome them, treat them warmly and cater to sensitivities they may have, they could still be happy to dine at such a restaurant again, and again. When the food is already satisfactory, additional facets of the experience such as great service and a pleasing ambience can increase substantially the desirability of a restaurant or coffee-house as a place consumers would like to patronize. We may be looking at a decision process where at first food is a non-compensatory criterion, yet above a certain perceived threshold the balance customers-patrons strike between food and other attributes of their experience becomes more intricate and complex.
Browsing reviews of restaurants that are shared on TripAdvisor’s traveller website can provide helpful clues on how customers-patrons relate to food and additional factors in their appraisals of their experiences at restaurants. Reviews were sampled of Italian and Asian restaurants in Tel-Aviv and London (members-reviewers may be city locals, national and international travellers — examples are quoted anonymously so that reviewers and the specific restaurants they review are not identified by name).
Reviewers most often open by referring to the food they have had at the restaurant; next they may give their assessment of the service they have received, design and atmosphere, price or value, and location of the restaurant. Thus, a review may start by appraising the food as good / great / delicious, and then stating that the service was good / nice / efficient. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon for diners-reviewers to open with an assessment of the service they have received at the restaurant. There seems to be a greater propensity to open the review with service when it is superb, but also on the contrary when it is terrible. Occasionally a review will refer firstly to the atmosphere in the restaurant, which is formed by aspects such as interior design or décor, lighting, music and overall ambience. Atmosphere will appear first or at least early in the review particularly when it is superior or inferior.
Additionally, we can distinguish between reviews that are composed of a few short argument-like statements about the food, service and other attributes, and reviews that tell a story (i.e., a narrative-like review). There are diners-reviewers who go especially into detail of the dishes or items of food they, and possibly their companions, have ordered, and their opinion of the food. Yet reviewers may also describe how they were treated by the serving staff, particularly when they felt exceptionally welcome and cared for or annoyed and undesired. Reviews that have a narrative give a stronger impression of the course of dinner to the reader who can more easily visualize it.
It seems that when diners-reviewers say the food is ‘good‘, they do not throw it out of hand; they do mean that the food is truly good, fresh and tasty. This appraisal should be interpreted as a base threshold for being satisfied with the food. When the food is more than ‘good’, reviewers explicitly express it with adjectives like ‘great’, ‘delicious’, ‘fabulous’ or ‘amazing’. Conversely, descriptions of the food as ‘average’, ‘OK’, and moreover as ‘mediocre’, are certainly not compliments, more likely suggesting the food was barely satisfactory. Unless there was something else especially good about the experience in that restaurant like its service or venue, the reviewer would probably have little motivation to return. Consider for example a reviewer who said about an Italian restaurant in Tel-Aviv: “The ONLY redeeming factor is, in my opinion, the ambience, which is really cozy and relaxed. Too bad they don’t serve food to match” (capitals in origin, rating: 2 ‘rings’ out of 5). Similarly, a reviewer of an Asian restaurant in London complimented it for its “friendly and attentive” waiting staff, but concluded: “So there were a lot of positives about this place, but I’m afraid the food just wasn’t good quality. It was very bland and boring” (rating: 2 ‘rings’). On the other hand, a review of an Asian restaurant in Tel-Aviv offers the opposite case wherein the reviewer states “AMAZING food, OUTRAGEOUS service” (title, capitals in origin), and ends with the conclusion “basically terrible service which was definitely the opposite of the wonderful tasty food we were served” — the rating for this restaurant experience: also 2 ‘rings’.
A prospective diner who looks for a restaurant to try for the first time may find the choice task confusing and daunting when reviews of the same restaurant are quite the opposite of each other in their content. Still, it usually does not take too long to realise the ratio of positive to negative reviews given to a restaurant, in addition to the chart of distribution of ratings it received.
Service appears as the second most important factor after food in a restaurant. Patrons want the waiting staff to be friendly and respectful (this of course is a two-way street), be attentive and not letting them feel forgotten, and to be flexible and kind enough to accommodate their personal sensitivities or preferences (e.g., less spicy, nuts-free, replace polenta with rice as supplement). Less pleasant or efficient service will not necessarily make diners-reviewers reject the restaurant if its food is excellent, but they could drop one grade off its rating (e.g., from 5 to 4). Inversely, when the diners-reviewers are happy with the quality and taste of food, then also meeting a warm and helpful waitress — or sitting in comfort in a beautifully designed venue — can make the whole experience so much better. Reviewers repeatedly emphasise when, on top of their pleasure of the food, they are impressed by a waiter or waitress who smiled to them, was friendly, attentive and helpful, and made them feel at home. A reviewer of an Italian restaurant in London explains why it is her favourite: “Quite simply, the food is absolutely gorgeous. Wonderful ingredients and very well cooked. But most of all the welcome that we received and service that we got from everyone is great” (rating: 5).
A particular aspect of service is the length of time a customer has to wait either to be seated at a table or while dining. Many restaurants take table reservations, but not all do. Not taking reservations is legitimate, but it is far less acceptable and even offensive when staff at a restaurant (including coffee-restaurants) run a waiting list at the doorstep and appear pleased with letting prospect customers gather and wait outside as if to show around how popular their establishment is; if you complain they may even hint at you how much they do not really need your patronage. Such past experience may have made a British reviewer visiting an Italian restaurant in Tel-Aviv be thankful when: “The staff were very pleasant and found us a seat on a very busy afternoon without behaving as if they were doing us an enormous favour”. In a different case, at an Asian restaurant in London, a reviewer commented: “Long wait to be seated, despite the place being half empty, as the servers were running around serving tables but not seating people”. Considerate restaurant proprietors may keep seats reserved for people waiting (e.g., next to the bar), and may even offer them a free drink if waiting is extended.
While at the table, diners dislike when waiters appear to forget them behind or somehow miss sight of them (e.g., waiting for menus, for taking order and bringing courses ordered, for the cheque). A reviewer in Tel-Aviv was critical pointedly of servers who “it seems lost interest”, and started chatting with their colleagues or playing on their phones. Waiting staff are expected to stand by, being ready to answer requests or voluntarily enquire if diners need anything. An American reviewer at another Italian restaurant in the city, coming “late one night”, appreciated that “my waitress made an effort to check on me regularly”. At an Italian restaurant in London, a reviewer noted that on arriving early for a meeting, “I was offered a newspaper to read while I waited which I thought a rather nice touch”; overall, he commended the service whereby “the staff proficiently and effortlessly ensured everyone felt special and were looked after”. Seemingly little touches matter!
In restaurants of fine cuisine it seems justified to wait patiently longer for an order (e.g., 20 minutes for a main course) as it could mean that the dish is freshly prepared with care for you in those very moments from start to finish [an advice received from my father]. In many ‘popular’ or casual restaurants, however, it would be much less the expectation, though it could depend on the type of food and how complicated it is perceived to prepare the dish. Furthermore, the sensitivity of customers-patrons to time spent could be subject to the occasion (e.g., meeting and dining leisurely in the evening vs. a pre-theatre dinner or a lunch break).
Reviews tend not to address directly the time until a dish ordered is served but more generally relate to the waiting time at any stage while being at the table. Some relevant references were traced in reviews of Asian restaurants in London: (a) A reviewer noted that “service can be slow” and “a bit hit and miss” (although the food and atmosphere were good); (b) Waiting for food was raised by a reviewer as an issue for concern: the waitresses seemed “understaffed” and having “stressed looking faces”, with the result that “We sat around with no food or drink for over 20 minutes before we could grab a waitresses’ attention” (the food was “fantastic” and the rating given could otherwise be 5 rather than 4 — the reviewer “would defiantly” return); (c) A reviewer who was overall happy with the friendly and efficient service and “freshly cooked and tasty delicious” food particularly remarked that the “food came quickly”.
The aesthetics of interior design of a restaurant or coffee-house can also have an impact on consumers’ attitude towards the place and on their behaviour. The style, materials, colours, surrounding decorations, furnishing, lighting etc. are instrumental in the way the design helps to create a certain atmosphere and mood (e.g., cold or warm; traditional or top-notch modern; quiet, ‘cool’ or energetic).
John Barnett and Anna Burles of ‘JB/AB Design’, a London-based agency specialising in design of coffee shops, offer six instructive guidelines on the ways design on different levels can contribute to brand experience. They start with creating a happening in the coffee shop (‘The shop is a stage’), followed by using appetizing imagery of food (‘customers eat with their eyes’); being authentic and relevant; persuasive visual merchandising; creative ambience; and giving customers good reasons to come and ‘gather around a table’ in the coffee shop. Their recommendations sound mostly if not all adaptable to more types of food and drink establishments, including restaurants. In setting an authentic design, they advise to ‘say it like you mean it’ all round the shop : “The whole shop is a canvas for imagery and messaging that forms the basis of a conversation with your customers”.
Reviewers-diners talk less frequently of aspects of interior design and description of the space of the venue; broader references are made to atmosphere or ambience. In the case of an Italian restaurant in the Tel-Aviv area with an elegant modern design, three different reviewers noted it has “a very nice décor”, that it is “very spacious and modern”, and the “interior is beautiful, a lot of air”. A reviewer relating to an Italian restaurant in London wrote: “The décor seems a little dated, but there were some fun touches”. This reviewer also addressed music played in creating a pleasing atmosphere (“alternated nicely between Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti — perfect!”). A reviewer-diner mentioned earlier, who was impressed by the newspaper gesture, also said of that Italian restaurant: “The ambience was extremely relaxed and the décor is comfortable, plush and smart”. An Asian restaurant in Tel-Aviv was described by a reviewer as “pleasant, with very informal atmosphere, soft background music, and industrial/downtown décor”.
Some appraisals of design and atmosphere sound somewhat more reserved though still positive. For example, a reviewer said of a luxury Asian restaurant in London that it is “very dark inside, but somehow it is also very cooling place”. A reviewer in another luxury Asian restaurant was very impressed by a modern-futuristic design yet felt uncomfortable with it: “The place is playing with your perception, slightly disorienting with its colours and stairs and reflecting surfaces”. The reviewers quoted above were largely very happy with the food as well as the service. In just one case observed, a reviewer of an Asian restaurant in Tel-Aviv became very upset with the food and proclaimed “Sorry! But when we decide to go to the restaurant, we wish to have a good meal, NOT ONLY a trendy design” (capitals in origin, rating: 1). In this case the “rather nice designed place” could not compensate for a poor food experience. Customers-patrons welcome inspiring and modern designs, but the design must also feel pleasing to the eye and comfortable — be creative with designs but not be excessive.
A top priority for restaurants, and to a similar degree also for coffee-houses, remains taking the most care of the quality and taste of the food they serve. However, it is essential to also look after additional factors or facets that shape the customer’s experience such as service, design and atmosphere, price or value. The kind of service customers-patrons experience is especially a potential ‘game-changer’. Additionally, consumers may not be coming to a restaurant or coffee-house for its design but if it looks appealing the design and atmostphere can make the stay more comfortable and enoyable, and encourage patrons to stay longer, order more, and return. Food is a central pivot of customer appraisals, yet other facets of the experience can tilt it either way: spoil and even ruin the experience or instead support and enhance it.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)