Audiologist, deaf pizzeria owners wage war on diners' No. 1 in-restaurant complaint

| by S.A. Whitehead
Audiologist, deaf pizzeria owners wage war on diners' No. 1 in-restaurant complaint

Half a billion. That's the number of people worldwide suffering from "disabling" hearing loss, according to a July article in the medical journal, The Lancet. Note, that's "disabling" hearing loss. Also note, that's 6 to 8 percent of the world's population, many of whom love pizza, but may be passing up your brand because of the in-restaurant noise level. And as the world population ages — particularly in the U.S. —  that could mean business lost since there are also many more individuals who suffer from milder forms of hearing impairment.  

Advocates for those with hearing loss and other forms of hearing impairment, however, are working to change that. The Seattle-based company — Lend an Ea r—  has created a certification program to help restaurant patrons choose places to eat that are "ear-friendly." It also has an app that aggregates data about sound environments in businesses and other public spaces,

The certification program measures things like restaurant operators' willingness to adhere to practices like lowering ambient music volume, as well as incorporate noise-reduction materials into the unit's design and even provide quieter areas for customers who want to sit or be re-seated there.  In return, the displayed certification helps those seeking "ear-friendly" restaurants find them through a window display. 

"Anyone who wishes to have a conversation is affected —at business meetings,over coffee/lunch, a family get-together. "

Perhaps fittingly then, the program launched with adoption by its first brand, Mozzeria, a pizza restaurant owned and operated by a deaf couple in San Francisco. Mozzeria owners Melody and Russ Stein say that although the vast majority of their patrons are hearing individuals, they wanted to both support the certification and support a program that supports those with hearing loss. 

Lend an Ear founder and CEO Kelly Tremblay said she is not surprised that most of Mozzeria's customers are not deaf or hard of hearing. As Tremblay put it, even for those with no loss of the sense at all, excessive noise levels is an extremely common complaint from diners these days. 

Tremblay, an audiologist and professor at the University of Washington specializing in aging and communication, said excessive noise prevents many potential customers from enjoying the in-restaurant experience. In fact, a 2015 Zagat Survey showed nearly a quarter of the U.S. population identified noise as their No. 1 dining-out complaint. 

"Noise in restaurants is a huge a challenge for so many people, as noise level impacts the customer experience," Tremblay, said in an interview with Pizza Marketplace.  As an advocate for those with hearing loss, Tremblay said audiologists and other advocacy groups for those with hearing loss often share lists of restaurants and other businesses that they have deemed more "ear friendly." 

She not only created the certification program to address that problem, but also the mobile app, iHEARu, which combines business decibel-level data collected by smartphone users and shares it with app users. She believes the app in combination with the Lend an Ear certification program, will work together to help both those with hearing loss and the businesses that cater to them.

Recently, Pizza Marketplace talked to both Tremblay and Mozzeria's Melody Stein to get a better understanding of the overall problem and ways restaurants can best address it. 

Q: Dr. Tremblay, which types of groups are your target audience with both the app and the certification program? For instance, are these geared more toward older adults or those with all types of hearing challenges?
Older people are just one demographic. People who suffer from tinnitus or hyperacusis (sensitivity to loud sounds) and people who are introverted tend to prefer quiet places. Anyone who wishes to have a conversation is affected, (for example), at business meetings over coffee/lunches (or at) a family get together.  

Note that some people might like it loud though as well. There were many times as a parent that I dreaded really quiet places if I had my two toddlers in tow. 

Q: On that topic then, Ms. Stein do you find those who most frequent your pizza brand are typically those with hearing loss or does that seem to matter?
Ninety-five percent of our customers are hearing. We are not aware of their hearing challenges.  

Q: Dr. Tremblay, how does noise diminish the experience of having a meal out? 
There is science to support how sound (type of sound and level of sound) affect our behavior. This includes spending habits (and other factors).  It can also affect our body's stress levels, for the good and for the bad. And so, depending on who you are you might enjoy quiet or loud. 

The range of restaurant noise can vary across low-end and high-end outlets and certainly businesses know how to use noise level to their advantage. There's a market for high-end quiet and high-end loud. 

Q: What are the biggest causes of noise problems in restaurants? For instance, is it typically the volume of ambient music, table placement acoustics or other factors? 
All of the items you listed contribute to noise problems and there is an entire industry (for example architectural and engineering firms) dedicated to noise reduction and there are specific recommendations in place. Many are very inexpensive, (like) curtains, absorbent decorations (and) coating of chair bottoms. Others are more expensive, like acoustic tiles and sound isolation construction. 

"I see the interest as growing now that we have technology to provide solutions. The problem is longstanding and well documented in the popular press. What's been lacking are solutions that empower the people to be part of the process."  

Q: The app is free, but how does it work? 
Even though I'm a scientist and it was instinctual to create something that worked like a scientific instrument, it quickly became obvious to me that it needed to be something the public can identify with. With the help of focus groups, the app was designed with the public's input. It's more of a lifestyle tool and is available for androids and iPhones.

Q: On the flip side of the coin, Ms. Stein, as business operators who are deaf, what kinds of challenges have you faced?

Stein: We do not believe we have hearing difficulties. We embrace our deafness. The biggest obstacles would be how we are perceived by others.   

Usually, the obstacles are short-lived as we exemplify with our ability to adapt to each of our customers. We have paper and pen on each table plus we would use gestures. If we notice the customers are tense, we'd joke with them and simply smile. Our main priority is to see customers happy and for them to walk away with a full belly! 

Q: How do the design elements and other features of your restaurant help create the best sound environment for your customers, particularly as yours is the first restaurant with the certification?
The lighting is conducive to our environment as we rely on non-hindering vision around us. We also have an oversized mirror that allows us a 360-degree view as we tend to customers. 

Q: Dr. Tremblay, where do you think public interest is around this issue and where's it going, say a year or so down the road? 
I see the interest as growing now that we have technology to provide solutions. The problem is longstanding and well documented in the popular press. What's been lacking are solutions that empower the people to be part of the process.  

I would hope that ear-friendly signage in the windows of establishments will become mainstream and consumer demand, directing business to these establishments, will provide consumers with options they deserve.

Feature photo: iStock

Inset photo: Mozzeria

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Hot Products, Interior Décor, Operations Management

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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