Photos by Rick Daugherty
Dark dining, a trend where you eat in complete darkness, was introduced both in the United States and abroad about three years ago, but it never caught on. That’s because the right lighting enhances the dining experience, helps the staff, creates a sense of security, makes the pizza and other dishes look their best and creates a pizzeria where people keep coming back. Poor or bad lighting can drive customers away. But no lighting at all just doesn’t work.
“You can have the best reputation in town, but if the light levels are inappropriate, it doesn’t matter,” says Mark Hershman, director of lighting design at Impact Illumination in Lenexa, Kansas. “People won’t come back.”
That’s why when customers, at Sy’s New York Pizza in Eugene, Oregon, complained about the bright lighting in one of his locations, owner Mark Fischer took immediate action. He had just completed a rebate program with his local utility company and installed low-energy fluorescent fixtures throughout the building. These fixtures each contained two tubes, so Fischer removed one tube from each fixture, which dimmed the lights enough so customers stopped objecting.
Before Fischer took ownership of Sy’sin 2006 and used the utility’s rebate program, he said the lighting in his original location was a hodgepodge of thrift–store fixtures, which just didn’t work. Fischer found out that paying attention to just one aspect of his lighting – the energy efficiency – improved his bottom line by earning him a 15 percent savings on his electric bills.
Whether you’re installing lighting in a new pizzeria or changing what you already have, if you’re not already working with a designer, you’ll want to ask yourself the same questions a lighting expert would before you begin. What market are you going after? Is it high-end or not? How do you want your customers to feel in your pizzeria? How long do your customers usually stay? Is it mostly sit down or carry out business?
Higher light levels tend to get people in and out quickly, so that’s what fast food chains have. Hershman says the brighter lights lead to a higher pulse rate and a desire to move so they aren’t conducive to sitting, talking, enjoying your meal and lingering like lower light levels are.
“If you want a more elegant establishment that’s associated with higher priced pizza, the lighting should be more subdued,” says Hershman.
The first order of business when considering lighting is to make sure people can find you. Ron Harwood, president and creative director for Illuminating Concepts in Farmington Hills, Michigan, says lighting begins with the roadside experience.
“You want your façade to look cool and make people want to stop,” says Harwood. Onesto Pizza and Trattoria in St. Louis, Missouri, managed to spotlight their pizzeria with white “twinkle” lights surrounding the awnings, large picture windows, the landscaping around the patio and lights shining on the brick wall displaying their signage.
Because the restaurant is located in a neighborhood that is nothing but homes, Michele Racanelli, co-owner, says people often think they are lost until they see the “lights.” “We truly stand out with our outside lighting,” says Racanelli, who also did the decorating for Onesto. “It makes us pop.”
Make sure your outside lighting makes customers and staff feel secure walking from the parking area to the door of your restaurant. If you have a parking lot, developers or your local utility company usually take responsibility for the lighting. Know who to notify if any of the lighting outside isn’t working or seems too dim to provide security.
“Half of our (eight) locations have parking lots,” says Dan Black, president of Zeeks Pizza in the Seattle area. “Those have flood lights that are handled by the property manager or the building owner.”
You’re going to need to find a focal point. Racanelli decided to use track lighting and other larger lights to illuminate her pizza station.
“Because we only have 60 tables, people often have to wait for a table — so we provide a show at our pizza stations,” Racanelli says. “Our chefs not only throw dough, but they’ve mastered synchronized dough tossing.” Aim lights at your photographs or paintings on the wall. Shadowy mixed with brighter light levels works the best to keep the visual experience exciting, Harwood says.
Tables need to be lit so customers can at least read the menus. Instead of wax candles, consider LED batterydriven candles for your dining tables. They produce the same amount of light as a regular candle and are safer, says Harwood.
“You can use a row of MR16 downlights (low voltage recessed lights) to highlight the top surfaces of the tables and make the food look better,” says Harwood.
Because pizza, for the most part, uses “warm” tone foods like red tomatoes, yellow-orange cheeses, red pepperoni and wheat-colored crust, the light that shines on the pizzas should be in the 2,800-3000 degree Kelvin temperature range (your electrician or lighting supply store can help with this) to render these colors the best, according to Hershman. The warmer light source also make mushrooms, green peppers and onions look more appetizing.
And don’t forget your register area. Mistakes made at the cash register almost certainly affect your bottom line. This is one place where people need to be able to read and you don’t want dim lights. Harwood recommends two 50-watt lights three or four feet above the register area with the lights pointing down. Harwood says you don’t want your restaurant to look like your home, so shy away from the light fixtures you’d have at home. “This is a third place experience, not a home experience. The lighting should be eye candy,” says Harwood. ❖
Here are some suggestions on how to be more “green” with your lighting:
❖ Use lamps that use less than normal wattage.
❖ Incandescent and Light-Emitting Diode (LED) lights are disposable and environmentally-friendly.
❖ Install lights that allow you to manipulate the levels by raising or lowering them.
❖ Don’t light every square inch of your restaurant –– just place lights where needed.
❖ Contact your local utility to see what programs it offers to help you with lighting.
❖ See if you qualify for the tax benefit offered by The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT), which lets you deduct the cost of new lighting systems completed before January 1, 2014, in a single tax year instead of amortizing them over a period of years. (Visit www.lightingtaxdeduction.org to learn more.)
❖ Buy your lighting supplies locally.
Heather Larson is a freelance writer in Tacoma, Washington, who frequently writes for trade publications.
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