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A bright green wraparound bar layered with greenery on top and gold touches.
V DTLA
Wonho Frank Lee

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How One Star LA Restaurant Uses Technology and Design to Boost Sales

V DTLA is thinking smart and making money

The overwhelming saturation of Los Angeles’s restaurant scene has started to catch up to the industry, as large-scale closures like Tartine, Cal Mare, and A-Frame have hit the culinary world in the past six months. While the struggles for profitability within the hospitality industry are a constant, Downtown LA hot spot and Eater LA’s 2019 Design of the Year winner V DTLA is using a blend of sociology and technology to stay successful.

V DTLA’s gorgeous space was designed by Swedish firm Livit, which has worked to help open thousands of restaurants around the world — from branches of IHOP to trendy spots like Pacha in Ibiza. The group’s primary focus is to blend design and technology to enhance profit margins for restaurants — all while keeping customers happily engaged in eating, drinking, and spending money inside.

Social experimentation is nothing new to the restaurant industry. Fast-food restaurants throw around the color red in nearly every logo because it elevates excitement (and, studies show, it may make diners more hungry). Casual restaurants often rely on harder chairs to make sure customers don’t get too cozy, increasing turnaround times at their tables.

Those are common examples; Livit CEO Benjamin Calleja tells Eater that places like V DTLA and the second V location in Malmo, Sweden, are aiming to do even more. “We use data and research to understand how senses affect guest behavior in restaurants,” says Calleja in a call from his office in Sweden. The firm often tweaks the experience of sound, smell, and touch throughout the dining experience, while tracking the related effect on check averages and dining times.

Here are five ways Calleja says that his team uses research data and technology to inform a restaurant’s design.

A lavish lounge on the second floor, complete with domes artistic ceiling.
The upstairs at V DTLA
Wonho Frank Lee

Leading with light

At V DTLA, the lights have some manual control settings, but here’s where it gets interesting: They are also precisely timed to an atomic clock which turns the lights down or up automatically at specific intervals throughout the day. Because of the clock, everything can be timed out with almost absurd precision throughout a day, week, or year, timing to everything from sunset to happy hour. It all feels either like overkill or just another example of exacting data at work, depending on whom you ask.

The automation does save them from asking someone from the staff to remember to alter the mood, which is less reliable. “We’re actually trying to take the control of the environment out of the control of the general managers,” says Calleja. “They don’t have to think of the lights or the temperature or the music, so that they can focus on the guest.”

Music matters

“In Stockholm, one of our restaurants is right underneath the Spotify headquarters,” Calleja says. “We do a lot of research from there. For example, when you play non-familiar music,” he notes — referring to songs outside of the top 40 playlists and most-played algorithms of Spotify — “guests stay longer, therefore the average check goes up. When you play familiar music, guests are more aware of time.” The same can even be true of B-side recordings of common songs, he says, as long as they’re less familiar to the listening diners.

Calleja adds that brand-specific music — that is, curated songs and playlists that are arranged ahead of time and align with the publicly held view of a corporation’s brand identity — can dramatically increase a feeling of happiness and time spent inside of a restaurant. One experiment, undertaken at four different McDonald’s locations over the same time period, says Calleja, found that check averages could be boosted by as much as 9 percent with brand-specific playlists, as opposed to only popular general pop music playlists. McDonald’s now partners with Spotify to curate its own lists, and has them available by country online.

At V DTLA, higher-ups curate the playlists and can set the mood using sound, depending on the night in question. That means raising and lowering volumes based on the time of day and number of diners present, and — just like the lights — timing the music to offer a specific feel throughout the day. Sometimes it’s pop hits, sometimes it’s obscure stuff meant to slow down the dining room turnover.

Plush throwback lounge seating by an open window near the sidewalk.
A window out to the street at V DTLA

Value-focused design

Visual and tactile experiences vary greatly from restaurant to restaurant — think of the more stoic dining rooms of fast-casual restaurants like Cava as opposed to the lushness of Bavel in LA’s Arts District — and have a hand in determining how a diner feels about a space, even without having eaten anything.

At V DTLA, Calleja says, that means “increasing the value of things that guests touch.” It’s okay to skimp on ceiling or floor materials, but the chairs and the tables matter. Marble, brass, wood, and weight (think heavy cutlery) all contribute at V DTLA to making a diner feel value inside of a restaurant that still offers quick-fire cocktails and food. Even the art, a mix of faux graffiti against classical sculpture imagery, is meant to give a sense of modern wealth against a hip, urban backdrop.

Salami, chile, and red onion blistered pizza on a plate.
Salami pizza from V DTLA

Smell drives sales

At V DTLA’s sister site in Sweden, ownership pumps in smells throughout the day to entice diners to spend more on certain items. It’s an inexpensive (and increasingly common) tactic, and one that Calleja says is likely coming to V DTLA down the line. “When we use our wood-fired scent,” he notes, “our pizza sales go up. But when we switch to a basil scent, our salad sales go up by 13 percent.”

Livit even designed a maple syrup scent that’s in use by IHOP all over the world; the smell is sprayed from a small canister, and lingers just above the front door. For now, those scents are reliant on cartridges that get changed once per week. Calleja says that soon enough, multiple cartridges will be available in one long-lasting compartment, and that the whole thing will be run via app, once again lessening the time an on-site staff member’s physical input is required.

Not chef-driven

“I believe that restaurants are moving in two directions,” Calleja notes. The first path is toward an increased focus on convenience and affordability (and even delivery), and the second is on restaurants that can optimize the social aspect of gathering in one public place to eat. The former will hone in on speed, ease, and affordability, while the latter would rely on some combination of a chef’s pedigree and the design and feel of a space itself as a draw for groups looking to interact publicly. Calleja says that while he agrees that any restaurant’s food must be of a certain caliber, he’s not sold on the notion that chef-driven restaurants, where individual dishes are paramount, will be the most profitable (or popular) places to dine in the near future. V DTLA does not have a name chef, and likely never will; the space itself is all.

A shrimp cocktail in a tall glass, with edible flowers on the side.
Shrimp cocktail
Dropping in a garnish on a clear cocktail using tweezers.
Adding garnish

“We did a focus group. We took exactly the same pizza, and we put it in a white pizza box, no name or brand. And then we took another pizza and put it in our pizza box,” he says, referring to V DTLA’s uniquely designed black boxes with a slide-out tray, “Guests said they would be willing to pay 27 percent more money for the pizza in our pizza box. It’s the same product.”

Of course, not everything is working perfectly at V DTLA. The restaurant recently switched from its opening counter-service model, doing away with the tokens that were handed out to each person who entered. Those tokens held an RFID chip that located each person within the space so food runners could find them and owners could track the most-used portions of the room, while also counting the total number of diners and adjusting sound and light cues accordingly. The line-up-and-order-at-the-bar model proved confusing for first-time diners in LA, though Calleja says it’s still immensely popular in Europe, where casual neighborhood restaurant and pub culture is more pervasive.

And while some of the tech used inside V DTLA has allowed for higher margins and lower costs on the menu, the restaurant still sells cocktails that hover around $12 apiece; a value compared to the $20 drinks at the Nomad nearby, but not exactly dive-bar prices. Still, the overall introduction of sound, light, design, and tech cues have made the restaurant a popular place on busy Downtown weekend nights, and could prove to be a workable model for other LA restaurants down the line.

V DTLA

515 West 7th Street, , CA 90014 (510) 858-6581 Visit Website
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