Are there fat tables in restaurants? This is a bit preliminary, but from our research so far it looks like people order healthier foods if they sat by a window or in a well-lit part of the restaurant, but they ate heavier food and ordered more of it if they sat at a dark table or booth. People sitting farthest from the front door ate the fewest salads and were 73 percent more likely to order dessert. People sitting within two tables of the bar drank an average of 3 more beers or mixed drinks (per table of four) than those sitting one table farther away. The closer a table was to a TV screen, the more fried food a person bought. People sitting at high top bar tables ordered more salads and fewer desserts.
Some of this makes sense. The darker it is, the more “invisible” you might feel, or the less easy it is to see how much you’re eating. Seeing the sunlight, people, or trees outside might make you more conscious about how you look, might make you think about walking, or might prime a green salad. Sitting next to the bar might make you think it’s more normal to order that second drink, and watching TV might distract you from thinking twice about what you order. If high top bar tables make it harder to slouch or spread out like you could in a booth, they might cause you to feel in control and to order the same way.
Or this could all just be random speculation. Now, the facts are what they are, but whythey happen is not always clear.
Does sitting in a dark, quiet booth in the back of the restaurant make you order more dessert? Not necessarily. It might be that heavy dessert-eaters naturally gravitate to those tables, or that a hostess takes them there out of habit. Regardless, we know that lots of extra calories coagulate where it’s dark and far from the door.
We have an expression in our Lab: “If you want to be skinny, do what skinny people do.” Avoiding the fat tables may be a baby step toward being slim by design. If you want to stack the deck in your favor, think twice about where you sit. Conversely, if a restaurant knows which “skinny tables” will sell more of those high-margin salads and that expensive white wine, they can fill those tables up first, leaving the back tables empty until the onion-ring lovers rise up and demand to be seated.[i]
There are easy changes you can make as soon as you arrive at your restaurant, but there are also easy changes restaurant can make to help you eat healthier. If enough people told the manager, “I’d eat here more often if it wasn’t so dark and loud and if there weren’t all of these annoying TVs,” eventually one of the restaurant corners will have more light and less TV.
[i] Of course, if a restaurant sells only chicken wings and onion rings, these same insights can be used to encourage people to overeat. Fortunately, most restaurants would rather make twice as much on a healthy food than make half as much selling anything else.
[ii]Still preliminary, Brian Wansink and Mitsuru Shimizu (2014) “Exploring on Seating Location Relates to Restaurant Ordering Patterns, Cornell working paper.
For 30 years my Food and Brand Lab and I have done research to discover useful, win-win answers to everyday questions related to shopping, dining, and eating healthier at home without sacrificing anything. These answers are also very useful to companies that want to profitably make their customers or employees healthier and happier. Please share whatever you find useful.