Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting
I was dining at a popular Italian restaurant in a popular outdoor lifestyle shopping plaza at a popular time – Saturday night, 7:30pm. We had a reservation, but expectations for being seated on time were low because of COVID. Generally, everyone gets a hall pass so minor grievances like wait time or long ticket times (the time it takes between when you order and when food is delivered) are not a problem. Indeed, we waited 30 minutes beyond our reservation, our server was overloaded with 6 tables (she forgot our order…twice), cold food was warm/wilted, and hot food was lukewarm with a heat lamp skin over it. No worries! It’s a tough time for the foodservice industry and being Karen / Ken only makes you TikTok/Reddit famous. I get it. But even with everything restaurants have been dealing with over the last 18+ months, one thing is entirely within their control: the music. At this restaurant, we heard loud classic rock featuring iconic favorites like Stairway to Heaven, Highway to Hell, You Better You Bet, and Hey Joe… played over tinny speakers at a volume that made my wife wince more than once. She had to stop talking several times to wait for Jimmy Page to finish his solo before she could resume our discussion about our youngest child’s choice of major at college.
Music can make or break a dining experience. Too loud and your guests must shout to hear each other. Too soft and it fails to mask intra-table conversations. Too much bass and wine in wine glasses will jiggle in rhythm. Too little bass and familiar tunes lack a richness that even Alexa can best. Selecting music that is appropriate for the dining experience or concept, set to the right volume, and right tone is well within the control of restaurant management and no pandemic should excuse poor choices. It can be set long before the shift and, with some simple equipment, can even programmed so the volume increases and decreases with restaurant business volume. Here are 5 recommendations for your restaurant’s music decisions:
- GET BASS! The Parasaurolophus (it’s a dinosaur) had a weird shaped head with what looked to be a long horn jutting backward from the crest of its head… but it wasn’t a horn. It was a resonating chamber for communicating over long distances. Audiologists have long known that deep, low frequency sounds (bass) travels farther than high frequency sounds. When a music track is played on a system with a commitment to bass, the whole song is richer. The most phenomenal thing about bass is that it allows the music to be played at lower volume, which means it can set a mood or tone without drowning out table conversations. If a restaurant should do one thing, it should be to beef up the bass through subwoofers or speakers with built-in bass. Or play it through a Parasaurolophus skull.
- Choose groovy music. I like AC/DC as much as the next middle-aged male. Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar playing was regarded by some (and me) as the best blues guitar in history. And The Who’s anthem to sex and drinking “You Better You Bet” is an immutable classic. In my car at level 11? Yes! When I’m with my wife at dinner trying to enjoy a good Burrata and a conversation? Uh …no. While the genre of music can and should vary with the restaurant’s brand, it should enhance the dining experience, not feel like the night manager’s personal playlist. I can be slightly “dancy” with a distinct rhythm like Bill Withers “Use Me” or the Bee Gees “Night Fever”, but not too iconic or powerful like Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”. Jazzy like George Benson’s “Give Me The Night” or Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues”…but not too far like “Reelin In The Years” (guitar is too strong). It can be classic country or rockabilly like Johnny Cash or Hank William Sr. But Nine Inch Nails “Head Like A Hole”? – no. Amos Lee “Colors”? – yes. The purpose of any playlist is to appropriately energize the room, not to showcase anyone’s personal eclectic music tastes.
- Keep it unfamiliar. One thing I love about eating in many Mexican restaurants is that the music is distinctively unrecognizable. If there are vocals, they’re singing in Spanish…and my Spanglish is only good enough to pluck out an occasional word. If it’s a song that is actually on one of my playlists, I’ll recognize it and sing along in my head. If I’m recognizing a song and singing it in my head, then I’m NOT listening to the person who I came to dinner with. The worst is when a song comes on that someone likes, and they say “ooo… I like this song!”…which means they’re not listening to you. When a playlist is saturated with familiar songs, it competes with a guest’s experience. When it wins, the music has become an intruder and someone at the table has shared or split attention. It’s impossible to create a playlist of songs that no one has ever heard before, but laying off of the greatest hits list is a good idea.
- Vary genres. Back to the popular restaurant in the popular shopping complex, I knew every song on that playlist. I could practically guess what was coming next…because when I built a shed in my backyard, I probably played the same Spotify playlist on my Bluetooth speakers for a week. Classic rock is great to hammer to… but not to eat to. Mixing Buena Vista Social Club with Billie Holiday and then some Amos Lee or Garth Brooks is a great way to appeal to a broad audience while allowing guests to focus their attention on their tablemates. By varying the genres, the music contributes to the experience instead of dominating it.
- Watch the volume! In a restaurant, when the sun goes down, the lights go down which makes sense as you think about it. Similarly, as the restaurant fills, the restaurant gets louder with conversation and activity…and so should the music volume. A restaurant manager cannot set the volume at “high activity” levels at the beginning of the shift. If they did, the first few dozen customers will be blown out of the water. The constant is the relationship between ambient activity volume and music volume. Music should be perceptible and energizing but not dominant. As mentioned above, adding bass will allow restaurants to keep the volume lower, but whatever the EQ setting, controlling volume level is critical. It is possible to automate the volume with an automatic volume control module but, with sometimes unpredictable business surges, a smart manager will do well to pay attention to that relationship and diligently adjust it throughout the shift.
I’ve never heard anyone say, “I go to this restaurant because they get the bass just right.” Even when the music is bad, folks may not remember it…but they do remember having a bad time, even if they don’t ascribe the experience to the music. For a restaurant, making bad music management choices becomes like a black light for their customers: it makes them hyper-sensitive to other problems that might otherwise go unnoticed.
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