Jason Smith’s tour of 18 Seaboard often includes an ode to the black foam on the ceiling that helped solve the fine dining restaurant’s most common complaint.
“It’s noisy,” was mentioned by customers two or three times a day, said Smith, who owns 18 Seaboard and two other restaurants. “The dining room is noisy.”
About three years after opening 18 Seaboard, Smith found a solution that cost him less than $5,000.
To be clear, Smith said, $5,000 was a lot of money to invest.
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But if he used it to solve 18 Seaboard’s top complaint, “well, that’s a pretty good return on investment, in my opinion,” Smith said.
Smith is one of many small-business owners across the Triangle with companies that have faced noise issues in their dining rooms, offices and lobbies.
Others with acoustic issues include companies that seek to ensure clients, patients or employees have privacy and their conversations don’t spill into the next room; firms that want to promote more interaction or less distraction in open office space, and nightclubs that want to prevent the sound from reaching neighbors.
To address noise concerns, small-business owners should start with thinking about their goals in terms of noise levels and how that fits into the company’s culture, said Noral Stewart, owner of Stewart Acoustical Consultants.
Stewart, an electrical engineer with specialized training in acoustics, said owners should establish a clear idea about what they want to accomplish with a process that considers the desired level of noise from their target markets. Older crowds might like quiet dining spaces, he said, and younger crowds may want a little bit more noise.
Stewart recommends that small-business owners start with acoustical consultants, which typically consult with and help people and organizations solve noise control concerns, he said, just like architects design buildings versus building them.
Only about 5 percent of Stewart Acoustical Consultants’ clients are small businesses, Stewart said, as the costs of its services often price those firms out. Small companies with tight budgets can turn to specialty acoustical contractors, he said.
“Find an acoustical contractor that has done a lot of work in facilities similar to theirs and make sure that they get several options,” said Tim Harward owner of Raleigh-based Mid-Atlantic Specialties, which Smith hired to help him address noise issues at 18 Seaboard.
Harward tries to give owners different solutions with multiple price points, he said.
Complaints about noise
Smith opened 18 Seaboard in 2006 and achieved its modern, slick look by using many hard surfaces, which reflect sound and created a constant stream of noise in his dining room.
Customers immediately started commenting on the reverberating noise levels, which only continued to increase as Smith brought more tables and chairs into the dining room to meet the restaurant’s growing demand, he said.
Smith initially brought in a sound specialist, who ran some tests and offered a couple solutions that required totally redeveloping the restaurant.
“Which we were not in a financial position to do,” Smith said.
Smith turned to Mid-Atlantic Specialties, which had installed some window blinds and light treatment at the restaurant. Smith invested in the solution and Mid-Atlantic employees installed polyethylene foam on the restaurant’s ceiling.
“It is basically this black foam about 6 inches deep,” Smith said. They attached the foam to the already black ceiling, and the foam started muting the noise as it was being installed.
“It was a night-and-day turn-around,” Smith said.
The foam, Harward said, is primarily made for recording studies, but it is one of several acoustical products that Mid-Atlantic Specialties sells. Others include various panels that can be hung from ceilings or on walls.
Small companies have recently sought out Mid-Atlantic Specialties to stamp out echoes in rooms used for video or telephone conferences and secure privacy in rooms that host private conversations, Harward said.
Sometimes Harward works with acoustical consultants, architectural and interior design firms, but other times he works directly with small-business owners, he said.
Harward said he gets an inquiry from a restaurant about once a month, but most decide not make the investment.
Harward, however, said noise levels are a central part of diners’ experiences, pointing out that The News & Observer’s restaurant critic Greg Cox includes a “noise level” category in his reviews.
Mid-Atlantic Specialties also recently started offering acoustical wall panels that can be covered with custom designs from a JPEG image or a photograph, he said.
For example, a panel in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ gift shop has an image from the Hubble Telescope.
“You are just sort of limited as your imagination,” Harward said.
Making the investment
Adam Hoffman is general manager at Clouds Brewing, a craft beer-focused bar and restaurant with a wall of 10 self-service beer taps. It opened in August on North West Street in Raleigh.
Noise levels quickly became a problem, Hoffman said. Conversations in Clouds would bounce off areas within the concrete building and guests couldn’t hear or understand the people they were standing next to.
About two weeks after opening, Clouds hired Mid-Atlantic Specialties to install about 65 sound-dampening panels. Clouds paid about $27,000 for the improvement, and Hoffman said it was worth every penny.
“I truly believe we wouldn’t have the business,” that they have now without the panels, Hoffman said.
When Smith renovated the future home for his Harvest 18 restaurant in Durham, which opened in March 2014, he ripped out the previous tenants’ drop ceiling and installed some of the black foam.
“It really softens up the space,” he said.
When Smith opened Cantina 18 about five years ago, he didn’t include the black foam for a couple of reasons. Cantina 18’s ceiling has a “beautiful wood rafter ceiling,” he said, that he didn’t want to cover up with black foam. Also, the smaller space with lots of booths is more conducive to noise.
“It is the kind of restaurant,” Smith said, in which “it is an advantage to be loud and busier.”