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Dining to the beat of a different drum

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Steven Chan opened the first Tin Drum Asia Cafe near Georgia Tech in 2003 and has since expanded the fast-casual chain to 10 locations, with three more slated to open by year’s end and 10 planned for 2013. From the beginning, the playlist was nearly as important as the menu, said Chan, whose passion for picking the right music had him personally compiling songs the first few years. Today, the task is outsourced to a service that refreshes the streaming-music lineup of 500 to 700 songs monthly based on a strict set of criteria established at the outset.

I talked to Chan to hear more about music’s role in the restaurant.

What role does music play in your restaurants?

Not just for restaurants but as a retail component, it’s no different from the smell of the food or the color of the walls — it’s part of the experience, whether the consumer notices. When we put a plate of food in front of you and the aroma hits you, you’re not tasting it yet but you are experiencing the dish. Before the food arrives, when you step into a restaurant, you step into a show. The music is there, and you might not notice it, but it’s a crucial component that delivers part of the show.

Within that, simply put, providing variety within your music program gives that experience that someone needs during the time when the consumer is inside the restaurant. The type of music you play defines your personality, so from a branding point of view, it’s how you tell the customer who you are. It’s a good way to convey that, no different from the color palettes. It’s like when you go to a movie. The soundtrack — the score of the movie — is important, and some of the scenes would not be as powerful without the music. Like during the last scene of the movie, when the hero’s kissing the girl, the music behind it is a big piece of the reason you cry.

Music is important to me, personally, so I pay a lot of attention to it. It’s not something restaurants should ignore. If you set it up right upfront, it’s beneficial and it pays off.

What are the qualities that make the music distinctive to Tin Drum?

Our criteria are that 65% of our songs have to have a tempo of 120 beats per minute — jazz has about 80, dance clubs about 240 — so that’s our foundation, our baseline beat. The rest have higher tempos and lower tempos. Secondly, we never play any radio-friendly songs. We do play remix or cover versions of pop songs, but never the original version. Then, part of it is that the music is organic, not electronic.

To me, it’s no different from when an artist is putting out an album. If there are 10 tracks, he or she will select which is Track 1, which is 2 and so forth, because the artist wants to tell a story. For us, it’s in a way no different; it’s curated.

Do customers notice?

There are customers who ask about music all of the time. Having said that, there’s only a certain percentage of consumers who pay attention to music. For those who don’t, the music delivers the personality of the restaurant. For those who pay attention to it, they’ll ask, “Where can I get that song? Whose song is that?”

Are there people who come back because of the music?

Yes. I would not say the percentage is high, but there are people who are passionate about the music, and that’s the reason they support you. It’s no different from the reason you go to Abercrombie & Fitch. It sells the same clothes as Polo Ralph Lauren, maybe, but the environment it creates is the reason people go there, and the music is a big part of that. The restaurant is retail; we play in the same arena.