Pink walls, pink tablecloths, pink chairs—the love for Joe Marzilli’s Old Canteen in Providence, Rhode Island is unapologetically colorblind. Luckily, they can get away with it because it’s been a city favorite since 1956. It reminds you of sitting in your grandmother’s living room – if your grandmother catered several course meals and invited all the city’s original Italians that fill the parking lot with low-ball license plates like number two and ten.
Most restaurants can’t get away with a fabulously pink decor though, in fact, most shades of red are a no-no. The ambiance of a restaurant is a huge part of why patrons come back — and building customer loyalty and retention is a huge part of growing a business.
When we consulted the experts, they pushed heavily against red in any sit-down restaurant, saying that red is appropriate only for fast food. Joe Marzilli gets a pass here because his light shade of pink evokes luxury and a bit of ironic decadence. In our research, we found that shades make all the difference.
Here’s an analysis that we gathered from color and feng shui experts Cara Gallagher, Dana Claudat, Nancy Zeigler, Gina Mims and Judith Wendell along with Jonathan Raduns, food merchandising consultant at National Restaurant Consultants.
Almost all of our experts told us that red increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and stimulates impulse eating. While it does provoke hunger, Claudat says, “we mistake red for being a prosperous feng shui color for food—it is not.” Gallagher says the reason why red works so well for fast food is because their goal is volume. “They want to get diners in and out quickly. The faster the people eat and move along the quicker they can get new diners in their establishment.”
Zeigler elaborated, saying that the hue of red matters. The brighter the red, the more it will repel your customers. “Red stimulates conversation and raises heart rate, so people get excited, physically and emotionally, when they first enter a red room,” she says. Accents aren’t all bad though, as you can see from this example of New York’s Red Restaurant, who despite the name, only uses red as an accent color.
While bright red is typically on the no-no list, Zeigler recently painted the walls of a restaurant a deep brick terracotta color – still a version of red, but on the earthy and warm side. She says that other colors known to stimulate appetite include oranges, persimmon, deep yellows and fresh greens.
“Sit down casual restaurants often benefit from soft natural colors and tones that encourage folks to relax and enjoy themselves, and hopefully order an appetizer and possibly stay awhile longer for dessert and coffee,” says Raduns, “green is a great color for restaurants trying to communicate freshness and healthy options.” Silver is often added to this combination to add a “new age” feel, emphasizing the sense of freshness not only in taste but also in style.
“Health food restaurants have been focused on green and wood,” says Claudat, but green works less well in bars and naturally dark places, where a bright, fresh green turns more dark and dismal, according to Zeigler’s recent redesign of this old pub.
Prasino, the greek word for “green” is a restaurant in Chicago who chose browns in the form of recycled woods and cardboard to evoke the feeling of health and sustainability.
“Warm earth tones are best for fine dining”, says Mims. “Use deep reds and rich tones combined with textures and woods. Soft lighting and fire is also an element of color that helps convey a more elegant experience.”
Neutrals and colors that represent vegetables work best – and despite red being on the blacklist, pumpkin oranges and squash-colored yellows work great. Claudat says that orange gives customers “a stronger sense of physical attachment to live and promote more cheerful overall responses to a space”.
For example, look at Orange Leaf, a frozen yogurt chain that uses orange and white as their primary colors. The color orange makes them feel happy and less guilty about eating sweets, while the white contrast on their walls and tables makes the shop feel clean. Orange Hill Restaurant mixes orange, black and brown to create an upbeat yet formal dining experience.
The combination of orange and green can also create a sense of happy and fresh, which is popular in vegetarian and vegan restaurants. Restaurants that emphasize vegetables tend to use a lot of green, while meat-centric restaurants, like steak houses, use more browns and blacks.
Blues aren’t common in restaurants because they don’t evoke a feeling of hunger, but more of thirst. Blue provokes your kidneys, so it has “more to do with elimination then digestion,” says Wendell, who also notes the lack of blue-colored foods other than blueberries. She also mentions that even though blue doesn’t make food look appealing (the reason why it’s not a popular restaurant color), “moving water is associated with cash flow in a business and thus you’ll often see a fish tank in front of an Asian restaurant.” It also propagates a sea theme in sushi and seafood restaurants.
Shark, a former hibachi restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island recently pivoted by taking their aquatic and blue-themed restaurant and turning it into a hookah/liquor bar while still serving sushi and small bites. The preexisting blue overtones will now help the restaurant evoke a feeling of relaxation while encouraging guests to buy more drinks.
“Purples are fun for coffee houses with a bohemian feel but are even better in a day spa, not restaurants,” says Mims.
Zeigler says “there’s really no “one size fits all” recipe for doing color design in restaurants. It’s really all about balance.” Mims concurs, saying, “Sometimes people have a favorite color they like but the real key is to study a bit about color theory to make sure it relates to the concept. It is about the guests’ feelings, not about the owners’ favorite color. If the vibe is energetic, use bright colors, if it is casual, use warmer more relaxed tones. Color is a great way to help invoke a mood and create a more complete customer experience.”