When making a restaurant choice what is often first discussed is the proximity of the restaurant, the time available to dine (a quick bite to eat or a leisurely meal) and the type of cuisine desired. However, there are many other critical drivers of restaurant choice that are at work in our minds though not often discussed with our dining companions. These elements may be summed to the way a restaurant makes us feel. People don’t usually discuss how a restaurant makes them feel when making a restaurant choice. These feelings tend to be subliminal, though they are critical. How a restaurant “presents itself” overall tends to have a huge impact on choice.

Restaurateurs often engage researchers to identify what attracts guests to their restaurant, what they need to keep doing or do more of to keep guest coming back, and what changes they need to make to attract more guests. Too often the research conducted focuses on the obvious, such as the menu, and it fails to uncover all the critical elements of the restaurant experience that drive restaurant choice. (Menu optimization is, of course, critical to any restaurant … but that’s a topic for another blog post.) Restaurant choice is not just about the menu, but the way the restaurant makes people feel.

Any researcher specializing in restaurants worth her salt will delve deeply into understanding not just the rational and oft discussed drivers of behavior, but the emotional drivers of behavior. As we delve into understanding behavioral drivers of restaurant choice we must also consider the atmosphere, the servers, the interactions, operations, environmental factors and other factors.

Let’s delve more deeply, beyond menu selection and flavor or quantity of food, into two of the several key attributes to consider when generating insights about the drivers of restaurant choice.


Consumers are not particularly adept at describing a restaurant atmosphere. To crack this nut, it is useful to employ projective techniques to uncover both the rational and emotional elements of atmosphere. Some restaurants are sophisticated and exciting, some are a comfortable hole in the wall and are the best kept secret in town, some are edgy, hip and cool. In addition to what might be visually apparent, some restaurants might make some feel like they are “snuggled up in a comfy quilt” while others might make them feel “rushed, unimportant, and just a number.”

It is important to describe the restaurant atmosphere and it is crucial to marry a thorough understanding of atmosphere to other critical factors such as:

  • The personality characteristics of those who are most likely to be attracted to the restaurant
  • The place and time of the person, couple or group making the decision (e.g. a midday work lunch or just completing a 30 mile morning bike ride)
  • Whether the restaurant lends itself to planned or spur of the moment dining


Most of us know that how we are treated from the time we walk in the door to the time we walk out the door can make or break a dining experience. But what are the underlying emotional drivers that affect the service experience? Often, during qualitative depth interviews with restaurant guests, examples of not feeling welcomed, not feeling appreciated, and to some extent being ignored or forgotten are shared both when researchers probe directly as well as spontaneously when guests answer seemingly unrelated questions. Some restaurants leave guests feeling they are “one in the herd” while others leave guests feeling “they are happy to see me” or even “part of the family.” How one feels they are served is woven through the entire dining experience and affects restaurant choice.

It is important to cross-examine these feelings and needs with factors such as:

  • Guest profiles
  • The frequency with which guests visit the restaurant
  • Needs states addressed by the restaurant

There are many drivers of restaurant choice beyond the assumed menu selection and food flavor, portion, and value that is often associated with it. Proximity of the restaurant, the time available to dine (a quick bite to eat or a leisurely meal) and the type of cuisine desired are obvious drivers, but a strong undercurrent of emotional drivers often trump the rational drivers and should be explored thoroughly to understand their impact on choice.

Kirsty Nunez is founder and President of Q2 Insights. Lori Enfield is Senior Market Research Project Manager at Q2 Insights. Q2 Insights, Inc., is a market research consulting firm with offices in San Diego and New Orleans.