By Joel Beckman with Tyler Gray
Quick quiz: What national casual dining chain restaurant comes to mind when you hear the term “sizzling fajitas”?
Got a name in mind?
Are you thinking of Chili’s? (Most people do.) Although they’re widely recognized as the pioneers of sizzling fajitas, Chili’s didn’t invent the dish. But they created a version of it that was loud as hell.
They made sound the main ingredient in their sizzling fajitas and tapped into a powerful experience. One that has helped Chili’s expand to more than 1,500 locations in thirty-three countries and two territories worldwide. Chili’s now sells more than 60 million pounds of fajita meat per year, “four times the weight of an average U.S. military submarine,” according to Brinker International, Chili’s parent company. Chili’s doesn’t sell steak. It sells sizzle.
That famous sizzle is just one example of the power in the sound of food itself. Charles Spence, the head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford and his partner, fellow experimental psychologist Massimiliano Zampini, used Pringles potato chips and headphones to manipulate the sounds of crunch in the ears of participants, who rated freshness and crispness of the chips, based on the sounds.
Spence and Zampini found that “the potato chips were perceived as being both crisper and fresher when either the overall sound level was increased or when the high-frequency sounds (in the range of two to twenty kilohertz) were selectively amplified.” In other words, the louder or sharper the crunch, the fresher the chip seemed. Crispness and freshness are actually in the ear of the beholder.
The sound of the environment while dining makes a big difference in your experience, too. How do you feel about airline food? It’s pretty bland, right? While the low humidity in an airplane cabin and the cabin pressure affects the way you perceive taste, a Unilever study suggests that the lack of flavor in onboard meals can be partially blamed on the dull drone of the airplane engines. That type of noise makes you less sensitive to salt, sugar, and spices. But you do notice more crunchiness, according to the study, which would help explain why you’re likely to pass on the in-flight Salisbury steak but ask for a second bag of peanuts.
The chief designer at Chipotle, Mick McConnell says the impact of sound on atmosphere and sales almost became a problem for the Tex-Mex chain restaurants. When he was brought in, speakers and music and the materials in existing Chipotle locations often created an irritating swirl, a kind of dust-devil of noise in the exact areas people were supposed to sit, relax and dine—part of the restaurant chain’s strategy to elevate itself above fast food status. Mick helped solve the problem by strategically redesigning Chipotle’s sound—using softer materials that wouldn’t reflect sound and creating a more positive dining atmosphere.
This power of sound to influence your behavior becomes especially potent when it comes to decisions you make about spending money or time in a place. Clare Caldwell and Sally A. Hibbert, researchers at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, found that diners spent 13.56 minutes longer in a restaurant when they were listening to slower-tempo music than when they were listening to up-tempo music. They also found that customers spent “significantly more” on food and drink when slower music was playing. Caldwell and Hibbert were actually building on previous studies that focused on the time and money spent in malls, retail outlets, and cafeterias. In one such study in the 1980s, acclaimed marketing professor and researcher Ronald E. Millman found that supermarket sales went up 38 percent when the store played slow rather than fast music.
Sound can manipulate our environment and physically influence our decisions about what we eat, how much we enjoy it, and how much we’re willing to pay for it. The crunch of a pringle or the sizzle of a fajita can make us believe we’re enjoying our food more than we actually are, and the lull of a slow song can make us take our time and buy more food. The power of sound goes beyond the boundaries of what we hear into everything we see, smell, touch and devour.
Photo credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
Joel Beckerman is Founder and Lead Composer of Man Made Music. Talk to him on Twitter @joelbeckerman.