The phrase “the sweet smell of success” has never come to life more than in today’s restaurant ‘biz. Increasingly, in what has been coined “olfactory dining,” aromas are being used by foodservice providers to not only whet appetites and entice diners their way, but to generate an orchestrated profit.
Historical Use of Smells in Foodservice
Luring customers in by way of irresistible smells is nothing new in the restaurant industry. From the heavenly aroma of freshly baked bread permeating the premises, to baking at opportune times of the day (drawing customers in by their noses), to strategically placing trays of cinnamon and sugar near entranceways, to paying attention to ambient scenting, these tried and true methods have shown to boost both traffic and sales. In more modern eateries, releasing sumptuous smells (inside and out into the street) might come by way of kettles filled with chai tea and chocolate…
What’s new on the landscape, however, is the targeted treatment of aroma as a first-class ingredient, not only in the preparation of foods and drinks themselves, but in a host of innovative techniques created with the goal of delivering an enhanced, memorable, multisensory dining experience. For example, be on the lookout for aromatic cutlery and plateware, scent-enabled mobile devices, smell-enhancing attire, and other fragrance cues aimed at transforming olfactory stimulation into a unique selling point (USP). In fact, there are a growing number of ambient scenting technology companies helping set the stage for dining-out success.
If you are a savvy restaurant owner, caterer, coffee shop owner, food truck manager, or work in any other type of foodservice, you can gain an edge on the competition by donning your creative chef’s hat and conjuring up ways of maximizing the olfactory sense for profit and growth.
The Role of Smell in the Flavor Experience
You may be surprised to learn that taste is not the dominant sense when it comes to flavor perception! Rather, according to the food science literature, smell leads the sensory pack, accounting for 80% or more of our enjoyment of food and drink. This is why professional chefs and bakers routinely adjust their recipes to make aromas more concentrated and appealing.
How do smell perception and taste work together? When the nose (the most primal means of collecting information from the surroundings) detects a smell, it triggers the olfactory neurons in the upper part of the nose, sending electrical impulses to a part of the brain called the olfactory bulb. These impulses are passed along to the surrounding limbic system, which plays a key role in the regulation of mood, emotion, memory, and behavior. Put simply, unlike other senses, smell skips the rational filter in the brain and is a purely emotional sense.
Innovations in Delivering an Olfactory Dining Experience
To treat your customers to an enhanced eating and drinking experience, let’s lift the lid on some of the more pioneering ways in which restaurant owners and culinary artists are adding “smell” to their menus by delivering an enhanced olfactory element at the table.
1) Creative Use of Herbs and Spices
Putting high-tech aside, the simple addition of herbs and spices to a fork or spoon handle is one of several new restaurant strategies designed to provide a complementary aroma with each bite a diner takes. For example, consider a fragrant sprig of thyme clipped onto the cutlery handle, a vanilla pod serving as a skewer, or a stick of cinnamon with a lemon slice delivering an alluring dessert aroma of caramel, lemon, and cinnamon sugar.
2) Olfactory Enhanced Cutlery
Also new in foodservice are novel designs for cutlery which add an olfactory component. These include wooden spoons scented with raspberry or bergamot, often used to compliment plain ice cream. A hi-tech version of the same is the “aromafork” wherein chefs apply the scent of liquid aroma to a piece of blotting paper that is inserted into the mid-section of the fork. Even more advanced are porous ceramic spoons capable of releasing aroma themselves. Designed in Australia, diners can now enjoy a three-fold sensory experience of a bowl of vanilla ice-cream with each of three different scented spoons.
3) Olfactory Enhanced Plateware
Similarly, culinary experts have been experimenting with aromatic plateware, often accompanied by a memorable ‘theatrical’ thrill. Examples include:
- Bowls of food placed atop a larger dish of hyacinths. The waiter pours hot water over the flowers at the tableside, releasing their scent immediately prior to customers’ consumption of the dish.
- Air-filled pillows topped by bowls of food. As diners dig in, the pillows release aromas into the air, such as a stream of lavender, a whiff of sweet nutmeg, the smell of toasted juniper boughs, or the comforting scent of cinnamon sticks with fragrant fresh rosemary.
- Plates made from burnt oak leaves or charred chestnut wood, where the plate itself is the source of the aromatic experience.
4) Smell Enhancing Attire
In effort to control the ‘smellscape’ or the olfactory atmosphere of their establishments, some restaurants require their wait staff to wear scented products or innovative new lines of scented attire. According to surveys, the strategic manipulation of aromas positively influences not only customers’ immediate dining experience but their spending habits as well.
5) Ambient Restaurant Smells
Did you know that smells can actually change one’s perception of a room? According to the experts, here is the scoop:
- Apple and cucumber scents make a room more airy or larger
- Barbecue smoke makes rooms feel stuffy and smaller than they actually are
- Cinnamon scents, as in the alluring aroma of baking cinnamon rolls. This is a crowd favorite with enormous attraction potential.
- An open kitchen design is another winning formula wherein the absence of walls separating the kitchen from the dining area allows the aromas of cooking foods to waft freely towards guests
Furthermore, smells can be used to trigger a variety of positive emotional and physical responses in customers, such as:
- Bay leaves are said to have stress-relieving properties
- Lavender relaxes the mind
- Peppermint increases alertness
- Chamomile and vanilla are well-known for their ability to relieve stress, reduce anxiety, and ease depression
Is it Worth Investing in Scent?
If you are still skeptical about spending your hard-earned money on restaurant scents, here are the latest industry stats: According to studies, the right aromas can increase food sales by up to 300%! Similarly, in a University of Paderborn study, scents increased diners’ impulse buying by 6%, buying intention went up by 14.8%, and the length of customers’ stay rose a significant 15.9%.
Using High-Tech to Augment the Olfactory Component
Believe it or not, there are a growing number of high tech gizmos, gadgets, and machinery designed specifically to deliver an extra olfactory ‘hit’ to diners. Here is some of what’s available on the market:
Rotary Evaporators: A device that allows chefs to extract natural aromas from foods and drinks. For example, with the use of a rotary evaporator, you can create distilled coco bean essence that looks like a white sorbet but delivers a surprising rich dark chocolate aroma.
Diffusion Systems: Restaurateurs can now provide customized fragrances that are dispersed via a diffusion system. Instead of burning wood, herbs, or other ingredients, high-tech companies are selling mixtures of natural and synthetic aromas to disperse through diffusion systems in individual areas or throughout the premises. Increasingly, the target is not only the dining space but restaurant hallways, bathrooms, exits and entrances. As one restaurant owner explained: The experience a customer has in the restroom influences their overall experience. Restaurants must realize how important it is to have clean, good-smelling bathrooms, but that the bathroom deodorizers don’t overwhelm or interfere with the smell of the ambient restaurant aromas. This is also where diffusion systems , via programmable technology, are an excellent way to neutralize various odors on a molecular level rather than overwhelm them.
Inhalable Foods and Drinks: Finally, creating quite a controversy in the food and beverages industry, commercial devices are being designed to deliver vaporized (aka inhalable) foods and drinks. Take the “Le Whaf”, for example, a large glass cylinder with an ultrasound attached. Liquid based foods are poured into the machine which agitates the mix creating a vapor cloud of flavor, without the caloric content. At its launch party, a chef created a crowd-pleasing gaseous concoction made from rice, soy sauce, and ginger and innovated what was deemed the first breathable chocolate cake from a mixture of berries, hazelnut liquor, and lemon vodka. Imagine pouring a vapor of chocolate cake into a glass and sipping it!
Yet herein lies the source of debate, since what inhalable foods lack is the oral sensory stimulation and enjoyment experienced from eating actual food. So while breathable drinks and dishes have certainly created a buzz among consumers and deliver an alluring element of surprise, the jury is still out on whether the phenomenon can stand on its own or would work better if an inhalable aromatic mist was served on the side, complimenting food consumption versus replacing it.
As the adage says, “the nose knows!” Good Luck in your endeavors and may you enjoy the very sweet smell of restaurant success.