Courtesy of Cornell University

March 8, 2020

The Psychology of the Restaurant Business

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What do loud music and uncomfortable chairs have in common? Prof. Stephani Robson ’88, hotel administration — a Cornell graduate and current senior lecturer in the School of Hotel Administration — described them as “just a few tricks of the [restaurant] trade.”

Pointing out that “less control means less comfort,” Robson recommended creating an environment where customers feel comfortable, a feeling that comes from constructing a sense of “perceived control” over their environment.

For example, placing tables against the wall creates an enclosed area, which fosters a sense of control and protection. But, not every restaurant’s goal is to prolong customer stay. If owners desire to get customers out of a space quickly, Robson suggested playing loud music or purchasing metal chairs.

This mechanism of increasing or reducing the turnover of customers operates on pretty intuitive logic, and this rationale has been exercised by restaurant managers throughout history.  “People had been using environmental psychology in restaurant design, but they didn’t [explicitly] talk about it,” Robson said.

Because of how subconsciously managers make these decisions—where to place a table, how high a booth should be — the study of restaurant configuration and consumer behavior may not be the most obvious topic for a PhD. But, during Robson’s time in graduate school, she studied exactly that: environmental psychology — the interplay between individuals and their surroundings.

“I spent a lot of time measuring the space between tables with rulers,” said Robson, who recognized that her research’s very hands-on approach to academia was atypical. “You don’t have to do something really rarified and niche … I just found a new way of looking at very common problems.”

Although Robson has published over 30 articles and research papers on the subject, the universality of her subject material frequently leads to skepticism from peers and audiences: “Almost everyone has eaten in restaurants and has an opinion about what makes a good dining experience. People say, ‘How did you get a PhD in this?’”

However, during her time as a student, designer, and lecturer, Robson grew to realize the importance of the intersections between her area of study and business.

“Business really is psychology,” she said. “Think about it: business is about transactions between people. You must understand people to do business.”

To students who are considering careers in hotel or restaurant management, Robson encouraged maintaining an open mindset.

“Students are rewarded too often for finding the right answer. In most subjects and in real life, there is no right answer…make connections among different disciplines, cultures, and your own experience,” Robson said. “The way that you think makes you unique and useful in business. If you can be useful, you have a competitive advantage.”