Noise has become the second most common complaint (after poor service) of U.S. restaurant goers, according to Zagat Survey’s America’s Top Restaurants 2008. Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema says it’s the most frequent concern he hears from readers and that, because he had so many inquiries from readers, he’s added noise ratings to his dining column – a practice that restaurant critic Michael Bauer instituted at the San Francisco Chronicle over a decade ago and which other newspapers nationwide have since adopted. “I know readers will welcome the addition of a sound check,” Tom says. “When I raised the subject of noise on a recent online food discussion, I got an earful. The feedback came from scores of people, of both sexes, and a wide range of ages. I’m surprised by how many twenty-, thirty- and forty-somethings are telling me they want restaurants to turn down the volume.”
Consumers’ increasing agitation about noise in restaurants may have something to do with the fact that, according to the Deafness Research Foundation, hearing loss affects more than 30 million Americans – approximately 10% of the population. What’s staggering is that in less than one generation – by 2025 – the numbers are projected to surpass 40 million. About a third of these cases aren’t aging related but the result of damage to the inner ear, primarily from too-loud music and entertainment. So, the number of people with hearing issues is climbing, and includes younger people. Almost 15% of baby boomers (aged 44-62) and more than 7% of Gen Xers (aged 30-43) already have hearing loss.
So, it isn’t just senior citizens who struggle to hear. More importantly, those who find today’s restaurants noisier than ever and have difficulty hearing each other (or a server) aren’t limited to those with hearing loss. Experts say that contemporary restaurant design – large rooms, high ceilings, hard surfaces, open kitchens, etc. – presents enormous acoustical challenges, which are often an afterthought. Add to the mix background noise from the HVAC system, wait stations, etc., then layer on music and diners trying to speak over it, and it can be deafening for everyone. And dangerous for those with prolonged exposure – such as restaurant employees. “A number of restaurants are in violation of OSHA, which establishes standards for occupational noise exposure,” says Tony Sola, acoustical consultant and founder, RestaurantNoise.com. Technically, businesses where employees are exposed to long or repeated noise levels of 85 decibels or above (which can cause permanent hearing loss) are required to provide testing and hearing protection. “It’s only a matter of time before OSHA starts enforcing these regulations,” says Tony. “Imagine your servers or bartenders wearing earplugs.”
“If only restaurants knew how much business they aren’t seeing because their dining rooms are too loud for would-be patrons.” – Tom Sietsema, food critic, The Washington Post
Tom’s “notably noisy” restaurants in the Washington. D. C. area registered 80-90 decibels. He and a number of colleagues nationwide are armed with noise meters, but, says Tony, restaurateurs can learn a lot by sitting in different areas of their restaurants and listening. “Much of what is acceptable is subjective depending on your concept,” he adds, “but can you have a normal conversation?” It’s an important exercise given what Tom reports, “I hope restaurateurs are paying attention, because diners of all ages are telling me they don’t like excessive noise – and they’re going elsewhere because of it.”