There are several reasons I’ve always enjoyed going to a restaurant that allows you to see the chefs working on your food. For example, you get to see how clean they keep their kitchen, and it's fun to watch the work it takes to prepare your food. (I've found that this makes me more patient as I wait for it to be finished.) New research shows that there is another benefit to this layout — chefs tend to serve better food when they see the people who are eating it.

The research

Ryan W. Buell is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. He, along with Tami Kim (a doctoral student at HBS) and Chia-Jung Tsay (an assistant professor at University College London), put cooks and their customers through four different scenarios. In one scenario, neither could see each other. In a second scenario, the customers could see the cooks. In a third scenario, the cooks could see the diners. And in the fourth, the cooks and the customers could see each other. The time it took to prepare food in each scenario was timed, and surveys were done asking customers about the service and the food. 

The results

There was no improvement in customer satisfaction when the diners could see the cooks. However when the cooks could see the customers, food approval went up 10 percent in comparison to when neither could see each other. However, the best results were when both could see each other. When that happened, customer satisfaction went up 17.3 percent and, strikingly, the service time improved 13.2 percent. 

Transparency is key

In other words, the more transparency there is between those preparing the food and those eating it, the better service the customers get, and the better the food gets. Why is that? 

Buell says, “We’ve learned that seeing the customer can make employees feel more appreciated, more satisfied with their jobs, and more willing to exert effort. It’s important to note that it wasn’t just the perception of quality that improved—the food objectively got better. During the experiment we had an observer in the kitchen taking notes and timing service. Normally, chefs would make eggs on the grill in advance, adding them to plates as needed and often overcooking them. When we turned on the screens and the chefs saw the customers, they started making eggs to order more often.” 

And this was true regardless of where they tried this — whether it was in cities or remote areas. When customers could see the effort it took to make their food, they were more likely to appreciate that effort, and when chefs could see their customers (even just through an iPad), they were more motivated to serve better food. 

Beyond food prep

This research could have ramifications beyond simply food preparations, the authors of this study note. When so much of the work done for us is hidden (whether the work it took to make the car we purchase, preparation done by those who teach us, or the office worker processing paperwork), we often don’t appreciate the labor that went into what we got. And on the other side, if those laboring for us don’t get to see us, they often lose sight of the people they are serving and don’t give as much effort. 

Buell points out that all of this points to the humanity of our interactions. “If you’re the employee, seeing the customer may fundamentally change the way you look at your job and how you perform it daily. You’ll cook more eggs to order, for example. And if you’re a customer, seeing the person helping you may recast your view of the exchange. This work highlights the humanity of interactions, of service. There’s something refreshingly human about the idea that just seeing each other can make us more appreciative and lead to objectively better outcomes.” 

So much of our modern world removes that human interaction between those who are offering services or products, and the people they serve. These researchers believe that opening up the exchange can be a cost-effective way to increase customer satisfaction and improve the quality of products. I find this especially fascinating as it is a common argument in favor of supporting small farmers. The modern farmer is often widely separated from the customers who consume his yields. The small biodynamic farmer who hands off produce weekly to his customer is undeniably more connected at a personal level and the customer to them. 

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