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Are your customers sitting comfortably? How to choose the right chairs for your restaurant

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A story has been going around for years about the furniture at McDonald’s restaurants. The theory is that the chairs at the fast food chain are designed to be uncomfortable so that diners do not linger, but move on and make space for more customers. It may be an urban myth, but there is no doubt that furniture is a vital part of any restaurant’s offering: if your customers are not sitting comfortably, they will not stay for long – or come back, for that matter. So unless you are a global fast-food chain or seeking a fast turnover of customers, comfortable furniture is surely the way to go. A glance through the restaurant reviews section of restaurants on the customer review site Trip Advisor shows that customers will not forget, or forgive, a restaurant with uncomfortable chairs, however good the food or service might be. 

And it’s not just a question of the chairs and tables at which diners eat (we’ll be coming to these shortly). If you have a bar area, it’s vital that it has comfy chairs (though not, as in Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch, used as a form of torture!). Now, it’s likely that space in your bar area will be limited, so it probably won’t be possible to scatter tub chairs, club chairs or leather sofas around like a gentlemen’s club. But perhaps a couple of snug armchairs or a small sofa could be placed in corners or up against walls, with low tables for drinks.

As for bar stools and tables: people's preferences tend to differ; some like the freedom provided by backless stools, whilst others enjoy the support that backrests can provide. A stool with a supportive backrest will improve comfort enormously, as will a padded or upholstered seat. Footrests help, too. Tables should be at a good height, and – this is crucial – they must not wobble. The same goes for stools: wobbly stools are likely to leave you with wobbly customers. 

In the restaurant area itself, as in the bar, there will inevitably be a trade-off between space and comfort. Chairs that are more comfortable generally take up more room. You might think it best to squeeze more diners in, but using fewer, larger, more comfortable chairs and larger tables could be seen as a long-term investment that yields loyal, returning customers. Diners will appreciate the space, and it will make it easier for anyone moving between tables to do so without fear of knocking someone’s drink over. It will also give diners more privacy. Again, it’s vital to avoid the “wobble” factor: floors should be even, tables stable.

The art of design always involves a trade-off between functionality and beauty. Some designers have almost totally ignored comfort to create chairs that are aesthetically amazing but almost unusable, as in the examples on this blog (The World’s 13 Most Uncomfortable Chair Designs), but mainstream furniture designers will see comfort as their chief priority.

The style of your chairs will of course depend on the surroundings. The theme in restaurant interiors, design and furniture these days is that... well, there is no theme. It’s fine to mix and match, placing old alongside new, classic alongside contemporary. The idea is to give a restaurant or a bar a homely, handmade atmosphere. 

But whatever style or theme you choose, comfort is key: arms and backrests are ideal; or chairs with a high, supportive back that enable diners to relax properly. Of course, for reasons of cleanliness and practicality it’s important that furniture can be cleaned properly and easily – but today’s synthetic fabrics can withstand all kinds of punishment. Sturdiness is important, too: diners need to feel that they are sitting on something solid – flimsy furniture can leave people feeling insecure.

Another key issue is noise. The trend these days is for restaurants to have hard surfaces: concrete or tiled floors, bare walls, bare tables, metal chairs, often a metal foodservice counter. These are surfaces that reflect sound so that it bounces around the room. The move towards open kitchens has made things even noisier. The result is a barrage of noise that can give diners a headache and make conversation difficult. Upholstery will help to absorb sound. Likewise, tablecloths will soak up some of the noise. A restaurant owner in Spain has even launched a movement which he has called “Eating Without Noise” to encourage a quieter, softer kind of dining.

There’s also something special about a pristine, pressed white linen tablecloth: it makes the occasion more of an event. A few years ago BBC2 ran a “reality” series, The Restaurant, featuring Raymond Blanc, which included a survey of public attitudes to eating out. Asked what they wanted on their tables, 82 per cent replied that they wanted a white linen tablecloth. (87 per cent also said that they preferred a “warm and inviting” interior to one that was “sparse and contemporary” or “bright and bold”.)

And then there are booths and banquettes. Customers love these, especially when dining in groups: they offer comfort, flexibility, intimacy and privacy. It’s almost like having your own private dining room. 

It also pays to be flexible. Among younger consumers especially, dining out is something that’s increasingly done spontaneously, in groups, and, because of irregular working hours, not always at set mealtimes. So restaurateurs should be prepared to accommodate groups of diners who might arrive, say, in the afternoon or early evening, and who will want to sit together. So your furniture should reflect this: it should be easy to rearrange tables and chairs to create a larger dining surface. You could even consider installing a large “communal” dining table: these are popular with groups of younger diners. They are also popular with younger customers who have no qualms about dining alone and are often happy to sit at a table with others and socialise. 

Finally, one vital issue to bear in mind is that your customers may be disabled or have problems with mobility. So it’s important to ensure that your furniture is flexible and moveable so that customers can reach their table with minimum disruption. It would be wise, too, to keep a supply of cushions on hand in case your customers need extra support or comfort.

 

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