How important are the details? Make no mistake the “small stuff” does add up when building an experience for your guests. First impressions help to draw people into your business, set the tone for the experience, build guest expectations, define your concept, demonstrate your commitment and establish the measurement for value. How are your first impressions?

I remember a great story that I heard years ago about SAS airlines. The story was titled: “cattle calls and coffee stains” and referred to the way that many airlines board planes and their lack of attention to detail. In the story reference is made to the guest who once seated, pulls down the chair tray only to find coffee stain rings from a previous passenger. As small a detail as this might be, the guest immediately wondered if they could safely fly the plane if the airline couldn’t even clean their chair trays. Details do matter!

Consider some of the more remarkable retail companies and their approach. Apple Computer draws people into their stores by using simple, clean lines that highlight the product. This is accomplished with dramatic use of light and glass, minimalistic décor and attention directed to the brand and the product. As a result they own the largest dollar sales per square foot of any retail company.

Anthropologie pulls customers in by creating one of a kind window displays that tell stories and tie the product into those stories that entice and educate at the same time. This company accomplishes this through a team of artists in every one of their stores, a home office department dedicated to research and design of these windows and a decision to forego traditional advertising for the uniqueness of their first impression strategy.

Restaurants can learn a great deal from these and other effective models focused on first impressions that are visual, textural, aural and in some cases even involve olfactory senses. Restaurants can even add the sense of taste to their first impressions.

Walk through your restaurant as a customer. Be aware of first impressions: “sweat the small stuff”!

1. Begin with your curb appeal. How does the restaurant look from the vantage of a car seat? Is it sharp, clean and inviting? Does the exterior need paint, better lighting, more appropriate signage or better landscaping? Is your parking lot clean, well lit, freshly paved and free of views of dumpsters and discarded equipment?
2. When you approach the entrance, is it inviting? Are the windows clean and does the entrance subliminally say: “welcome”?
3. As you enter the restaurant are you immediately greeted? Is the transition lighting such that your eyes adjust immediately from being outside?
4. What are the visuals? Are they related to the restaurant concept? Is the restaurant décor interesting, warm and free of unnecessary clutter?
5. Are the colors conducive to a great food experience (warm earth tones are best)?
6. Pay attention to the distinction between pleasant sounds and noise. What is the noise level (a comfortable level of customer chatter is a positive, acoustics that do not allow the sound to dissipate can be very unpleasant and will oftentimes ruin an otherwise positive experience for guests)? If you pipe in music of some type is it appropriate for the concept of the restaurant and it’s menu? Are there kitchen sounds drifting into the dining area? Are these sounds adding or detracting from the experience?
7. Look at your tabletop. Is the table covering, glassware and china, silverware a match for the value experience you are trying to create? Do you have flowers on the table? If so, are they fresh and vibrant?
8. Is the table lighting sufficient for reading the menu and viewing other people around your table? If not, this can dampen conversation and make menu decisions frustrating.
9. Are your service staff members professionally dressed and does the uniform (formal or informal) match the concept and the value experience? How about the staff members grooming (hair contained, body tattoos, jewelry and make-up) – is it appropriate for the concept?
10. Are your bathrooms attractive, well lit and most importantly spotlessly clean and free of offensive odors?
11. What are the smells in your dining room? Some food aromas are appropriate and may even add to the experience (the smoky smell of barbeque in a restaurant that features that product, the smell of fresh bread in a bakery, the aroma from a char-grill in a feature steak house), while others may turn people off (old oil in a deep fryer, too much garlic, burnt toast in a diner, etc.).
12. Look at your menu document. Is it clean, free of stains, torn corners, etc.? If not, replace them.
13. Finally, the restaurant has a unique opportunity to continue building positive expectations for a great meal and increase sales through the sense of taste. Consider the use of an amuse bouche (1-2 bite complimentary morsel from the kitchen) to encourage people to stand at attention for the flavors to come and even become more receptive to upselling. Make sure that your drinks, appetizers and soups help to build a positive picture for the overall experience.

First impressions are lasting impressions. Your goal should always be to create memories. Memories that are positive will bring customers back – the customers that allow your business to thrive are the ones who return on their own accord.

**NOTE: The picture in this post is of Alfred Portales Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City. This has consistently been one of my favorite restaurants in the country and one that truly understands how important first impressions are to their success.


  1. Reblogged this on Harvest America Ventures and commented:

    In case you missed this blog earlier today.

  2. Great post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed!
    Very helpful info particularly the final section 🙂
    I take care of such info a lot. I used to be looking for this particular info for a very long time.
    Thank you and good luck.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


%d bloggers like this: