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17. April 2023, 5 min read

Noses in restaurants: the role of scent in dining

Author: Birgitte Brøndum
Scents and the restaurant experience
The role of scents in dining

Restaurant food is all about flavours, textures and beautifully plated dishes that thrill the eyes and tastebuds of guests. But what about their noses? Numerous studies have shown the importance of scents in our perception of just about everything reality has to offer. Naturally, we all know that food should smell good, but there’s more to it than that.

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.” — Marcel Proust

The excerpt above is from “Remembrance of Things Past” by the French author Marcel Proust (1871-1922) where readers are led into the renowned Madeline moment. In case you’re not familiar with the Madeline moment, it happens when the book’s narrator takes a bite of a Madeline cake and unlocks childhood memories through the combination of the cake’s flavours and textures.

It’s a beautiful passage that many of us can relate to. Often, when we eat something at a restaurant or elsewhere, the flavours can evoke memories of a dish our grandmother made, a vacation in Italy, or a dinner at a friend’s house, and trigger memories of the circumstances surrounding those meals.

However, something is missing from Proust’s Madeline passage – the scent of the Madeline and the tea. According to Barry Smith, a philosopher and the founding director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, when we talk about taste, we’re actually also talking about smell. Smell accounts for a significant part of what we think we’re tasting. This means that scent plays an essential role in the dining experience that guests have at a restaurant.

Smell and taste in restaurants

Do these strawberries taste or smell sweet?

Although smell and taste are two separate and physiologically interdependent senses, it isn’t easy to draw a line between them. It’s commonly stated that 75% to 90% of what we taste comes from our sense of smell. But despite the popularity of these numbers, some scientists, including Charles Spence, argue that the empirical evidence behind them is missing. According to him, it depends on the combination of tastes and smells we’re talking about.

We don’t have to stick our noses too deeply into the many discussions regarding this. Nevertheless, the confusion is likely the reason why smell is missing from the famous Madeleine Moment. As Barry Smith explains, “People don’t have names for smells. They have names for the sources of smells or for tastes, but there are few words to describe the quality of odours.”

Scents and perception of restaurant food

A study from 2014 showed that humans can detect and distinguish between more than one trillion odorants (smells). Needless to say, this number is only a rough estimate, as factors such as culture and learned associations can affect how odours are perceived.

If you grew up in a house where a specific combination of smells was present throughout your childhood, your perception of these smells will be affected by your memories. Because of this, your experience of them can differ from another person’s experience of the same smells. Naturally, the differences are subtle, but it’s interesting to consider concerning restaurants and guests’ food preferences. The perception of flavours in the dishes on the menu can differ quite a lot from guest to guest. This seems to be strongly tied to the individual’s perception of the scent of the food.

Hungrier restaurant guests: appetite-stimulating food scents

Studies have shown that the smells of certain foods can induce an appetite for those foods. For instance, being exposed to the smell of bananas has been proven to make people hungry for bananas, as well as other sweet foods like chocolate cake. Similarly, the smell of savoury foods, such as bacon, is likely to make restaurant guests crave other salty foods.

Scientists theorise that food odours provide hints to our brains and bodies about the types of nutrients the foods contain. And from an evolutionary viewpoint, salty, fatty and sweet foods are full of calories we need to survive. Whether or not we need them as much now as when we were hunters and gatherers is another story.

Far from Madeline: bad smells that affect the restaurant Experience

On the flip side, it’s also crucial to manage and eliminate bad smells to ensure a good dining experience for guests and maintain a clean and inviting ambience.

Regular cleaning routines, proper maintenance of cleaning equipment, prompt removal of food waste, and investing in effective odour-control measures are essential steps to avoid unpleasant odours that can adversely affect the dining experience.

Some examples of sources of bad smells in restaurants are:

Fortunately, these can be controlled with a good cleaning and maintenance plan, so all your guests can smell is tasty food served in a clean and welcoming environment.

Scent markerting for restaurants

What is scent marketing?

Scent marketing, also known as olfactory marketing, is a marketing approach that targets customers’ sense of smell. It involves strategically placing scents in chosen locations within a store or restaurant. The goal of scent marketing is to strengthen brand recognition, enhance the customer experience, and boost sales. But does it work?

According to a study by professor of experimental psychology, Charles Spence, it depends on the business type and the goal.

Spence analysed the use of scent marketing in different food and beverage retailers. One example he brings up in the analysis is a big M&M’s store in London that infuses the air in the store with a chocolate aroma.

Another example in the study is the international bakery chain Cinnabon. In Cinnabon stores, the ovens are placed near the storefront. That way the sweet smell of cinnamon reaches the noses of potential customers walking by. According to the president of the Cinnabon Chain, Kat Cole, the stores that placed the ovens in a location further back experienced a significant drop in sales.

When the cheese scent is stronger than the coffee

However, having one dominant food scent can be an issue if a business wants to sell more than just one kind of food. The coffeehouse chain Starbucks had to take their breakfast sandwiches off the menu for six months in 2008 because the smell of the grilled cheese overpowered the coffee aroma. The issue was eventually solved by switching to higher-quality cheese and ham and grilling the sandwiches at a lower temperature.

The conclusion of Spence’s analysis is that scent marketing can be an effective tool for boosting sales if applied intelligently. Nevertheless, he’s hesitant about some of the “dramatic effects” promised by companies that sell custom-designed scent technologies.

Whether or not scent marketing can boost your restaurant’s revenue is likely to depend on the type of restaurant you have and how you want guests to perceive your brand. As we have seen, filling your restaurant with the scent of chocolate or cinnamon may have positive effects if those items are all you sell. But this strategy can be problematic if you also want guests to try your salads and savoury dishes. However, there is no doubt that paying attention to the scents in your restaurant and the aromas of the food can make a difference. If you want to learn more about how to shape your guests’ dining experience through their senses, you might find our articles on restaurant music, restaurant lighting, and colours interesting.