Sensory-Specific Satiety and Your Restaurant

All the best restaurants in the world – think those with Michelin stars under their belts – describe their fare not as food but as a culinary journey. Why do they do this?

Their cuisine is so uniquely flavored and artfully presented that the experience of eating at such a place transcends the normal concept of food. While I’m not advocating that it be compulsory for every hotelier to open a five-star restaurant within their property, there is a very powerful lesson here that can be applied to any eatery or hotel.

What’s important to learn from these restaurants with stratospheric prices is that a meal only begins with the food. The best places – the ones you remember for years after the fact – go far beyond in terms of ingredients used, ingredient preparation, cuisine smells, cuisine presentation, amuse-bouches, how the cutlery feels to the touch, restaurant décor, table decoration, restaurant lighting, server attitude and so on.

Each nuance or minor detail you add to the meal adds to the entire experience and, in turn, heightens customer satisfaction. Your aim should be to ‘saturate’ or ‘satiate’ a guest’s senses.

While décor or staff modifications are beyond the purview of this article, let’s turn our focus on the chief aspect of a dining experience – food.

Why F&B?

Guest satisfaction is the ultimate goal for food and beverage like any other facet of a hotel’s operations. In the past, I’ve been criticized for my unremitting focus on F&B over other hotel operations like sales, revenue management, housekeeping and human resources. While these are all vital to a property’s success, my F&B obsession stems from this simple fact: everyone eats.

What percentage of your guests do you predict to utilize your spa? What percent for other amenities like a gym, a swimming pool or a golf course? You might be lucky if any of these get above 25%. At the same time, I can guarantee you that 100% of your guests will be consuming food and drink at some point during their stay. My hope is that they choose your establishments as their dining options instead of someplace offsite and unaffiliated.

Many hoteliers take a neutral, often laissez-faire approach to their restaurants, particularly those not directly involved in their running. But F&B is an area of the hotel that every department should be passionate about. Why? Simply this: since everyone eats, we all have opinions about what makes for a great dining experience. Additionally, many restaurant problems can be cheaply fixed with creative solutions inexpensively implemented, helping make F&B a viable profit center.

Lastly, eating is an emotional experience. Where there’s an emotional involvement, there’s also transference. That is, the satisfaction a patron feels from your F&B fare is likely to subconsciously extend into other aspects of your product offering. The converse is also true; deliver a shabby eating experience and watch as unrelated, unimportant grievances transform into TripAdvisor-devouring monsters. As far as I see it, optimizing your dining experience (on top of all other aspects related to F&B) is a win-win situation.

The Importance of Satiety

Think about the phrase, “Eat until your heart’s content.” When we discuss customer satisfaction in terms of food, meals, beverages and snacks, what we are talking about at some level or another is satiety; not only how flavorful each bite or gulp is which is also vastly important, but also whether the allotted portion of food or drink actually fills you up.

Leaving a patron full is to accomplish one of the most fundamental of objectives food can do – sustenance. Your body needs nourishment and if a meal doesn’t meet its quota, positive sentiments for the food will be significantly harder to muster.

Because let’s face it: if your portion sizes are miniscule, it won’t matter how tasty the dish is or how wild its presentation is or how famous the chef is or how extravagant the décor is. A hungry stomach presages an angry person (I use the portmanteau ‘hangry’) while a full stomach heralds a happy guest. Hence, your first order of business for delivering meal satisfaction should be to give them enough food.

If you aren’t doing that, then it will extremely hard to increase revenues for your F&B outlets over the long-term. I can recall plenty of restaurants visited over the years where the food, ambiance and service were all spectacular, but the cuisine was doled out in such microscopic allotments that it derailed the entire experience. Any subsequent discussion with friends about the place would go along the lines of, “Yeah, food was spectacular but the portions were so small I wouldn’t really bother going back again.”

Reflect on the second part of that comment for a minute. Your food can be off-the-wall great – and indeed it better be if you want to garner those stellar critic reviews – but portion size plays such a critical role in return visits that you simply cannot ignore it. Next to no one will recommend an eatery where they didn’t feel they received the right amount of ‘bang for your buck’. Acclaimed chefs, opulent furnishings, widespread PR coverage and prudent advertising placements are great when you’re opening a restaurant, but it is the service, food quality and food quantity that will give it legs.

(Note: I am not recommending a ‘Super Size Me’ approach. Rather, an understanding of portion control management, appropriately reflected in the food cost controls.)

Sensory-Specific Satiety

Knowing that satiety is vital for long-term success, the next step is to consider ways to better fill patrons’ stomachs. The two most obvious methods are, first, a tempting breadbasket to preempt the main course and, second, increasing the portion sizes slightly. The latter tactic may be difficult to implement due to increased costs while the former has always been quite cheap, albeit with a fading demand due to rises in gluten allergies and wheat-abstaining dietary regimens.

Let’s discuss a third method, one that I remember all the way back from my days working with PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay Division. A term the food scientists would often throw around when designing a new flavor of Lay’s or Ruffles potato chips was ‘sensory-specific satiety’. This denotes how well a food product satisfies the spectrum of taste buds on the tongue (otherwise known as ‘flavor burst’) as well as how it, once broken down into its molecular components inside the stomach, interacts with the lining of the intestine. Technical terms, I know, but please don’t use with your customers!

Without turning this into a full-blown biochemistry lecture, it is nevertheless important that you understand a bare minimum of gastrointestinal physiology. Once broken down, food passes from your stomach into your duodenum where receptors on the inside of your intestine detect the presence of specific fragments and tell the rest of your digestive system to kick into gear. When a receptor for a particular molecule has been triggered enough times, a signal is sent to your brain to not feel hunger anymore – that is, satiety.

The inside of the intestine has a different receptor for many disparate types of sugars, fats, proteins, nutrients and minerals. Complex foods which contain a more diverse array of these base components will interact with a greater portion of these receptors, thus creating a stronger signal to the brain and better inducing satiety.

Some examples are in order. Let’s start with an indulgent, heart-clogging trip to a steakhouse. Suppose one person eats only a mammoth 22-ounce porterhouse while a second patron has a 16-ounce porterhouse in addition to a six-ounce serving of broccoli, mushrooms and fries. Both people ended up eating the same amount by mass, and yet the second individual would be more likely to feel full because he or she received a wider spectrum of nutrients (green vegetables, fungus and starches in combination with the slab of red meat).

Next, consider a piece of fried white fish versus a similarly sized piece of panko-crusted white fish. This light breading acts in much the same way as adding a tiny serving of starch to a meal to help you feel full. While on the topic of starches, which do you think is more filling: white flour or whole wheat? The latter, as it includes a myriad of sugars that are distilled away during the process of refining white flour.

There’s more. How about adding a slice of orange and honeydew to a greasy spoon breakfast, thereby rounding out the bacon, eggs and hash with a quotient of fruit containing sugars and fiber not found in starches or animal products? The concept also extends to beverages. Even though it is difficult to measure, which is better from a satiety point of view: a glass of orange soda or freshly squeezed orange juice with pulp?

Meal Design

If you think about the diversity of ingredients for each meal, then that should inform you that sensory-specific satiety is a factor in the design of every appetizer, main, dessert, beverage and combination of the four. For instance, fat isn’t just fat. There are animal fats, fish fats, fat in nuts and even fatty edible plants like avocados. Your body reacts differently to each and would feel the most satiation by receiving energy from as wide an array of fats as possible.

Sensory-specific satiety is also significant when it comes to ingredient sourcing. One issue that many dietitians have taken with GMO (genetically modified organisms) foods is that by tinkering with plant species, we have created food products with reduced nutrient complexity. This means that each serving of GMO vegetables won’t fill you up as much as an identical portion of the organic equivalents. And because organic foods have a more diverse spectrum of molecules, it also means that, in general, these foods taste better as well.

This also applies to preparation methods. Raw foodism emerged as a trend because nutrition scientists found that cooking foods alters their chemical structures and denatures some of base components. Generally speaking, the harsher the cooking conditions, the fewer nutrients contained in the food. For example, suppose you only eat almonds for a day. Which will better meet your energy needs: raw almonds or roasted almonds? Likewise, steamed broccoli is healthier than pan-frying the vegetable. Commercial processes such as pasteurization can also drastically reduce nutrient content.

To summarize, knowing that satiety will elicit positive emotions from restaurant patrons, achieving it should be a foremost goal for each meal proffered. From a physiological perspective, satiety is best attained by satisfying as many disparate receptors in the intestine as possible. Therefore, meals should contain a spectrum of foods, or at the very least a few select ‘nibbles’ to complement what’s provided by the pièce de résistance. Organic ingredients can also help you achieve satiety; so can raw foods. Discuss with your F&B team to see how you might apply this scientific wherewithal to every dish on your menu.

Additional Satiety Tactics

During the course of my research on this subject, I came across several other culinary tricks to subtly increase the satisfaction delivered with each dish. Although one or more of these might only work in select cases, they should nonetheless give you a better idea of what you should be doing to maximize a meal’s sensory-specific satiety.

  • Add seeds – Think about infusing quinoa, chia seeds, hemp hearts, pepitas, sunflower seeds or sesame seeds into a salad, soup or main. Most foods in this category are packed with healthy calories (fiber, omega-3 fats and so on) and they won’t overpower the primary tastes.
  • Use natural sweeteners – By their very nature, sweeteners like maple syrup, agave nectar, date rub, birch syrup or unpasteurized honey contain a far more complex range of sugars than your everyday brown sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
  • Medley salads – Why settle for digesting one type of fruit or bean when you can sample an assortment with many contrasting flavor notes and dissimilar nutrients?
  • Nuts – Although there will be always be allergy concerns, try mixing in some chopped or ground pecans, cashews, walnuts or pistachios into a recipe. Nuts are packed with antioxidants, healthy fats and minerals; they get you full, and fast. And instead of using flour for breading, consider almond meal.
  • A bit of butter – Speaking of nuts, who knew that adding a droplet of peanut butter to a piece of red meat would augment the latter’s appeal? It sounds crazy, but what’s really going on is that you’re widening the spectrum of fats contained in the dish, thus increasing the number of intestinal receptors activated. (As a side note, I recommend you do a taste test between a jar of big brand peanut butter and an organic competitor. And a further word of caution, peanut allergies abound, so do not add this under any circumstances without due warning to your guests.)

Satiety Beyond Taste

There are quite a few asterisks to the notion that satiety is the primary means for customer satisfaction. The food has to first have enough flavor that a person would even bother to take more than one bite, as well as a balance of tastes and textures – bitter, crunchy, dry, grainy, herbal, juicy, salty, savory, sour, spicy, stringy, sweet and unami. On top of that, meals must have ingredient combinations that entice patrons to order them. Both of these precede satiety on any ‘to do’ list, but no doubt your chefs are already fully engaged on both these fronts.

So, if we are moving down the list of priorities, once you’ve crafted a deliciously alluring dish that will quiet a person’s stomach, there are many other subtle ways to boost satisfaction. For this, a good motto to fall back on is: it’s all about completing the experience.

Dining doesn’t only comprise of taste and sustenance. It’s about sights, sounds, smells and touch – all five senses acting in unison. Tweaking ingredients, sauces used, portion sizes and cooking methods might bring a restaurant’s satisfaction score from a C- to an A-, but more is needed to make it truly sparkle. You have to satiate all of a person’s senses, not just their appetites.

Consider the blind juice test often performed during high school science class. Blindfolded and with his or her nose plugged, a volunteer is asked to try different juices and identify the corresponding fruit. Isolating for solely taste, guess what percent the average participant gets correct. I’ll give you a hint; it ain’t too high. To digress a tad with a cross-example, the 1980s ‘Take the Pepsi Challenge’ recognized that even the most diehard Coke drinker could not differentiate their brand from Pepsi without the bottle present.

This goes to show that we eat with our eyes and our noses as much as we do with our tongues. For aromas, give some thought to how people are affected by the dominant smell of a dish. How might patrons at other tables be affected by this meal? What happens when you add a particularly fragrant herb or spice?

As for display, what is a customer’s reaction to how the food is arranged on the plate? Are your chefs considering the color of foods when they are designing the menu? Will you strive for matching ingredient hues or using as much of the color wheel as possible on the plate?

There’s a lot to consider here, and this isn’t something you should leave only to your executive chefs to figure out. Everyone eats, and therefore it needs more attention from managers, staff members and guests to guide your F&B operations in the right direction. Sensory-specific satiety is but one more aspect of meal design to remember when trying to understand the far-reaching impact of food on overall customer satisfaction. With any luck though, it may just be the ticket for heightened and lasting profits.

(Published by Larry Mogelonsky in Hotel Executive August 25, 2014)