Jason Atherton is not a man who leaves anything to chance. Detail is his middle name – right down, remarkably, to the music played in his restaurants. His operations teams compile bespoke playlists for each venue, then Atherton (a music fan with opinions about everything from The Cure to classic hip-hop), reviews and edits them track by track.
(Photo: Lee Tiernan, at Black Axe Mangal insists his clientele love rock)
It sounds anal, but it is crucial, he insists. “I once made the fatal error of giving a little power to the managers. At Little Social, the music is all [French bistro-inspired] cool jazz and Parisian hip-hop. I said, ‘If guests get offended by any track, delete it and put something new on’. Once the music’s done, I don’t pay that much attention to it, but I walked in there two years ago, stopped in my tracks and went, ‘Fuck me, Elvis!? What the fuck is Elvis doing on the playlist?’ “That’s the danger. It’s like giving a chef a traditional French menu and, suddenly, you’ve got Asian spices in there.”
Such a focus on background music will strike some as bizarre. Do customers even notice it?
The only time they seem to is when they are complaining it is too loud. Yet many owners are convinced that music can subtly enhance the customer experience or, if you crank it up, become a major factor in a restaurant’s appeal.
Ironically, given that he is notorious for playing blisteringly loud rock and metal at his gourmet Islington kebab joint Black Axe Mangal (his wood-fired oven pays homage to glam rock band Kiss), Lee Tiernan thinks, like many in the industry, that the ideal background noise in any restaurant is happy chatter.
“St John has never played music and that is the best room you can go into on Saturday night,” he says. “That hum of 120 people is thrilling. If I could create that at my restaurant, perhaps I wouldn’t feel the need to play music.”
Instead, out of bloody-mindedness rather than calculated planning (“you could say it’s a condition of me going into work every fucking day that I get to listen to what I like”), Tiernan has settled on a soundtrack that both suits the fast-paced Black Axe Mangal and which, in a crowded marketplace, clearly differentiates it for its loyal regulars.
“The music gives the restaurant a certain energy,” he adds. “Generally, people want their food and then go. But there was no agenda. It’s fun. We’ve never turned it down when people ask. I’d rather they go elsewhere. We’re a pin-point demographic at Black Axe. Appealing to 0.1% of London’s population isn’t the best business model, but it’s about finding an audience.”
(Photo: Black Axe Mangal clientele love rock)
Breaking it down
As a teenage breakdancer who once had his own crew, Faze 5, Atherton agrees that, sometimes, you have to create spaces that have a specific appeal.
At the London Edition hotel, his Berners Tavern caters to all ages and tastes – “the hardest thing to do is cool, non-offensive music,” he says.
But at Hai Cenato – inspired by New York Italian restaurants, aimed at a younger audience, the soundtrack is vintage hip-hop – Atherton is more militant: “The first week 60% loved the music, 40% hated it. They said, ‘it’s too noisy, it’s like a nightclub’. It’s supposed to be. You’ve got to stick to your guns.”
Phil and Beth Milner, the husband-and-wife team behind Norfolk restaurant Shuck’s, share Atherton’s stance. “As a restaurant, you should definitely go for it with music,” says Phil. “It will transform your life.”
A little night music
(Photo: Shuck's in Norfolk)
Phil and Beth Milner are the husband-and-wife team behind the Shuck’s restaurant in Norfolk, which won the 2017 PRS for Music ‘Music Makeover’ award.
As part of their prize, the business won £5,000 towards a totally new, state-of-the-art PA sound system and in-restaurant set-up, plus technical advice completely tailored to their venue.
When the restaurant first opened, the music came from little more than an iPod with speakers.
However, the Milners impressed PRS for Music with their competition entry, detailing their ambitions to host live music, festivals, ‘battle of the bands’ events, play romantic music in the evening, attract families, young people, and new clientele, and welcome local acts to rehearse and perform in the unique, restaurant-in-a-yurt space.
They also mentioned the importance of good music for staff morale.
The site’s rural setting means there are few neighbours who might object to loud noise and there is enough space for festivals, parties, and multiple events.
It is the first year the ‘Music Makeover’ prize has been open to restaurants, having previously been focused mainly on bars and pubs.
The restaurant’s open-plan style and the fact that it doesn’t have any close neighbours means that the pair are advocates of ‘turning the volume up to 11’.
“The good thing is that there’s nobody else around here, so we can just play it as loud as we want,” adds Phil. “Food is obviously our main business, but music is just the perfect add-on. You can take it really far. The music brings the next chapter to what we want to achieve.”
The Milners also use music to “create a Café del Mar thing on Sundays,” and intend to have live DJs during the summer. Shuck’s is also hosting a battle of the bands event for local acts.
“The live music helps get people out here and gives the place atmosphere,” says Beth. “We’ve already had a lot of comments and reviews from people saying, we went there and the atmosphere was great and was really helped by the music.
“If you’re having a nice romantic meal and there’s nice music playing, it adds to the whole ambience of the place. And we can now do that, right to full-on party music. It also helps the staff as well – when they’re clearing down of an evening, you can just crank the music right up.”
(Photo: Music is key at Berners Tavern)
Music to munch to
Insomuch as music influences how diners behave in terms of spend and dwell-time, what little research there is seems to confirm what restaurateurs already know, instinctively.
Published in 1999 by researchers at the University of Strathclyde, Play That One Again: the Effect of Music Tempo on Consumer Behaviour in a Restaurant found that slower music encouraged diners to linger, for an average of 14 minutes longer, and spend more (up to £5 per head), on booze particularly.
Louder, faster music, by contrast, makes people chew quicker and eat less. “[It] activates the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight or flight’ response), which diminishes appetite. That is why you don’t suddenly feel hungry while being chased up a tree by a lion,” as Dr Neel Burton described it in Psychology Today.
A more recent study carried out in 16 branches of McDonald’s in Sweden found that a bespoke playlist encouraged customers to spend more than 9% more than they would usually.
The study found music that was selected by the Spotify-backed service Soundtrack Your Brand, which uses an algorithm to choose music that suits a restaurants’ brand, made customers more likely to buy additional items than if the restaurant played random popular music, with sales of desserts rising 11%, and smoothies and milkshakes up by 15%.
Generally, restaurants are not actively trying to manipulate diners’ behaviour using music. It may alienate those who dislike it, but loud music naturally suits party venues and those geared-up for speedy table-turning and a lower per-head spend.
The wrong song
(Photo: Ready or not: The atmosphere at Refuge relies on music)
Conversely, many restaurants use music as a far quieter ice-breaker, a subtle mood-enhancer, a discreet element that underpins the room’s natural, atmospheric noise and warmth. Like lighting, music can work an intangible magic that diners rarely notice… until it goes wrong.
“People need to be taken on a little journey, even if they are not aware of it. But the wrong track or harsh sound quality can ruin the atmosphere. It’s like opening a door. All the warmth rushes out of the room,” insists Justin Crawford, a former touring DJ, as one half of the Unabombers, who now runs Manchester’s Volta and Refuge.
Music is, arguably, most important at opening time – whether that is 10am or 6pm and, particularly, in venues where diners are at close proximity to each other or the staff.
“If you’re the first customer that morning and the staff can hear your shoes squeak and chair move, you’re self-conscious,” says Crawford. “It puts people on edge. Music masks that. It has an obvious function in those moments.”
The Journal of Culinary Science & Technology found that, in hushed restaurants, diners tend to find noises from cutlery and crockery unusually annoying. This is something Atherton accounts for.
“At Pollen Street Social, the music is designed to be heard by the first three or four tables so they’re not sat in silence with their first tasting menu courses,” he says. “As you get to five or six tables, the customers drown out the music. There’s nothing worse than being the first person in the room and hearing waiters whispering.”
Despite being DJs, compiling long, service-specific Spotify playlists for their venues, Crawford insists that he and his business partner Luke Cowdrey do not obsess about how cool a track is, or whether it is too obscure.
“What concerns us is the ambience set by styles of music at different times,” he says.
Staff are trained to react to the room and alter the music accordingly. For instance, has it started to rain outside? Has a party of 30 dropped in on a Monday night? “When they’re busy, the music can get too low or loud. I constantly remind them to stop and think about that space.”
Sound quality is important, too. “In Volta, we use old ’70s speakers so you get nice warmth. The top-end’s not there really, which is what bounces around the room, hurts your ears and interferes with conversation.”
A question of volume
(Photo: Hai Cenato)
That issue of music’s volume and noisy restaurants – venues where you cannot hear yourself think or your companions speak – is a huge source of irritation for diners, particularly in modish, open-plan spaces.
“Noise propagates around the room because it’s hitting hard surfaces and it’s cyclical because [in what is known as the Lombard effect] people then raise their voices to be heard,” says Jeremy Luscombe, marketing manager at Resonics, a company that installs sound-absorbent panelling.
In the 2016 US Zagat survey, excessive noise was diners’ second biggest complaint and newspapers have frequently reported restaurant decibel levels (normal conversational level is 60), in the 80s, 90s or topping 100db. Last year, Action on Hearing Loss launched its Speak Easy campaign with a survey that reported 79% of people have left a dining venue early, due to it being ‘too noisy’.
“There are 11 million people in the UK with hearing loss so, financially, it’s a no-brainer for the industry to help make dining out even more enjoyable and accessible,” says chief-executive Paul Breckell.
New figures released by national charity Action on Hearing Loss show that 43% of diners have opted to get a takeaway instead of going out for a meal, with 91% stating that they would not return to a noisy restaurant.
As part of its Speak Easy campaign, the charity investigated decibel levels in a selection of popular restaurants, and found that at busy times some restaurants’ noise levels reached above 90dB - the equivalent of a motorbike, a lawnmower, a whirring food processor or someone using a hand saw.
A Patisserie Valerie café was the worst offender, where a level of 97.89dB was recorded, followed by a recording of 90.1dB at a Wagamama, and 87.9dB in Pizza Express. Byron was the most quiet restaurant, with a recording of 81.9dB, followed by Zizzi, at 85.4dB.
The online survey, conducted by 1,200 members of the general public, found that the ideal sound level for a restaurant for 70% of people was some ‘conversational buzz’ with diners wanting a ‘low level of background noise at a level which enabled them to still hear their companions’.
A 2011 study by Oxford University’s Crossmodal Laboratory found that loud noise inhibits perception of flavour, but The Guardian restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin finds it annoying at a visceral level.
“It’s genuinely divisive,” she says. “Restaurants that deliberately play incredibly loud music are, basically, saying to a certain demographic, ‘we don’t want your custom’. The food is fantastic at Black Axe Mangal, but I’ll never go back because I can’t hear anything. I’m not anti it in principle. I like the swampy rock in Spuntino: it fits the mood but doesn’t drown out conversation. It’s kept at a liveable level.”
Despite there being DJs in the adjacent bar, the music at Manchester’s Refuge (which occupies the ground floor of a large hotel) is calibrated to drift alluringly, but not obtrusively, into the restaurant.
“We’re very aware of how the spaces affect one another. It only takes the wrong level by three decibels and perceptions of the environment change,” says Crawford. He also warns that recruiting DJs for such spaces requires real discretion. A playlist will often trump a club DJ gormlessly banging-out 120bpm house to an indifferent audience:
“Being a good bar DJ is an entirely different skill set.”
What constitutes fitting music for your restaurant, only you know. But at Black Axe Mangal, Tiernan has found his monstrous, thrashing groove. “On occasion, we’ve had to do an hour without the music,” he says. “It just feels…weird.”
Likewise, you need to ask yourself: is our background music hitting the right note?
This article was updated on 20 September 2017 to include up-to-date research and figures related to noise levels in restaurants.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Restaurant magazine, and was adapted for the web by Hannah Thompson. Subscribe to Restaurant here from only £70 per year!