A unique experience, like eating popcorn with chopsticks, can actually make customers rate your food more highly.
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Experience matters for your restaurant.

When there are so many dining choices and new restaurants seem to pop up daily, you need an edge to compete. How can you differentiate your restaurant?

A new study from the Ohio State University and the University of Chicago might provide an answer. According to study authors Robert Smith and Ed O’Brien, introducing novelty into the dining experience can make customers perceive the experience more favorably.

In other words, if you give customers something they have never experienced before, they will rate the food as more enjoyable.

Popcorn Tastes Better with Chopsticks

In their series of experiments, the investigators told subjects that they were participating in a study about “helping people eat more slowly.” They split the subjects into two groups and had them each eat 10 kernels of popcorn. One group consumed the popcorn with their hands. The second group used chopsticks to eat the popcorn.

They then had each participant rate the experience on measures such as how much they enjoyed the popcorn, how flavorful it was, and how much fun it was to eat the popcorn.

The results showed that the group that used the chopsticks enjoyed the popcorn more than the group that used their hands.

It’s not that using chopsticks altered the taste of the popcorn in anyway, according to the study authors. It turns out that the findings are a bit more complicated.

The group that used chopsticks “reported that they felt more immersed in the experience, that it helped intensify the taste and helped them focus on the food.”

However, the experimenters repeated the experiment and found that both groups enjoyed the popcorn equally.

“This suggests chopsticks boost enjoyment because they provide an unusual first-time experience, not because they are a better way to eat popcorn,” Smith said.

Does water taste better when you drink it from a unique martini glass? Science says that it just might.
Does water taste better when you drink it from a unique martini glass? Science says that it just might.

The experimenters then conducted a second experiment in which they asked participants to come up with their own “fresh, new and fun” ways to drink water like drinking water out of a martini glass. The results showed that those who used the novel ways to drink water enjoyed it more than those who drank the water normally.

Applications for Restaurant Experience

These types of studies have profound implications for the restaurant industry.

By creating a new or unique experience, a restaurant can actually improve their customers’ enjoyment of the food they serve.

According to Smith:

This phenomenon may explain such things as the popularity of “pitch black” restaurants that serve diners in the dark.

“It may not be anything special about darkness that makes us enjoy food more. It may be the mere fact that dining in the dark is unusual,” Smith said.

But you don’t need to go to such extremes to achieve the effect. Small, subtle but unexpected changes can be enough to create they feeling of novelty and thus, increase enjoyment.

However, this can be taken too far and lead to negative results. There can be a fine line between introducing a new challenge for customers and creating frustration. In fact, there is an entire sub-Reddit forum devoted to the topic called “We Want Plates.” In this forum, users submit the most ridiculous and frustrating examples of restaurants and bars that introduce novelty with less-than-spectacular results. Although amusing to browse through, these are definitely not experiences you want to inflict on your customers.

From Reddit's r/WeWantPlates - An example of novelty taken too far perhaps?
From Reddit’s r/WeWantPlates – An example of novelty taken too far perhaps?

Keeping Up the Novelty

There is a potential downside to the novelty effect: It wears off.

As shown in the popcorn example above, the second time the experiment was conducted, the novelty effect had virtually disappeared. This means that you may need to continuously be on the lookout for new and novel experiences to provide to your customers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does require sustained effort.

Fortunately, there are many different ways to introduce subtle novelties into your customers’ dining experience without becoming annoying or frustrating. Think about the numerous touchpoints of the dining experience. How can you change the presentation? Is there a part of the environment you could alter? Be creative!

Here are a few of our staff’s favorite examples of unique and unusual items to get you started. If you see anything that interests you, just click on the photo to begin shopping:



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