Where Skinny People Sit in Restaurants

Brian Wansink is a professor of consumer behavior and nutritional science at Cornell University. 

Are there “fat tables” in restaurants? This is preliminary, but so far, our research suggests: maybe! We recently visited 27 restaurants across the country, and we measured and mapped out the layout of each one. We knew how far each table or booth was from the window and front door, whether it was in a secluded or well-traveled area, how light or dark it was, and how far it was from the kitchen, bar, restrooms, and TV sets. After we mapped it out and diners began arriving, we were able to track what they ordered and how it related to where they sat. 

Some restaurants we visited for only one or two nights, but at one restaurant, we collected every receipt for every day for three straight months. At the end of three months, our Restaurant War Room back in Ithaca, New York, looked like a recycling center. It was full of huge bags stuffed with receipts that were wrinkled or wadded, smeared with steak sauce or wine stains, and autographed with things like “Thanks, Tiffany” and smiley faces. By analyzing these A-1-smeared artifacts, we are able to figure out whether somebody at Table 91 way in the back was more likely to order salad or less likely to order an extra drink than somebody at Table 7 — which is way up front, next to the door and bar. 

Here’s what we found (click the letters to see):

People ordered healthier foods if they sat by a window or in a well-lit part of the restaurant.
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 three 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, the less easy it is to see how much you’re eating, and the less conspicuous or guilty you might feel. Seeing the sunlight, people, or trees outside might make you more conscious about how you look, might make you think about walking, or might prompt 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 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 be random speculation. The facts are what they are, but why they happen is not always clear. Either well-lit, elevated tables near windows make you eat better, or people who eat better like to eat at well-lit, elevated tables. But while you’re contemplating the causality, the couple next to you just took the last elevated table by the window. 

From SLIM BY DESIGN by Brian Wansink, PhD. Copyright (c) 2014 by Brian Wansink, Ph. D. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Where Skinny People Sit in Restaurants