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Opinion: Marius Zürcher on music in restaurants

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Is a curated playlist the secret to a harmonious customer experience and a high-volume of sales? Authenticity is key, argues Marius Zürcher

No matter how well designed a restaurant is, if their approach to music is to just play a top 40 radio station, it often kills the atmosphere for me. Music is not just one of the crucial elements of a restaurant’s atmosphere however, but it can even have a direct effect on such things as its guests’ flavor perception and ordering habits. What a restaurateur decides to play and how they play it therefore matters more than one might think.

An important factor to consider is volume. Loud music encourages drinking, which can be financially interesting, but depending on the type of restaurant, it can also actively turn off customers. In addition, when music is too loud, it can negatively impact a customer’s sense of taste. Similarly, different frequencies can heighten certain tastes: high frequencies can bring out the sweetness in a dish, whereas low frequencies have the same effect on bitterness. Music that isn’t loud enough is also problematic, as it tends to mix in with the background noises too much, which can be annoying. It can furthermore make customers feel like they aren’t able to have a more private conversation.

Similarly, the type of music one plays can have varying effects. Fast music encourages faster eating and therefore might be attractive to restaurants that need to turn a lot of tables, whereas slower music encourages slower eating, but more spending. Similarly, certain genres of music, such as jazz or classical music, are associated with a higher class of restaurants, whereas more popular genres are associated with a more relaxed atmosphere.

The origin of the music can matter as well. Customers are, for example, more likely to order French wine if they identify the music they are hearing as French. The type of music one plays can thus have a major impact on the brand of a restaurant.

To curate, or not to curate?

Given all that, a part of me wants to recommend that restaurants rely on strictly curated playlists, filled with music that reinforces their brand and enhances the food they serve. Another part of me, however, rejects such a formulaic, rational approach. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that the seemingly lazy choice of falling back on top 40 radio stations – corny DJs and commercials included – kill the atmosphere for me.

Yet, while I was eating breakfast in the basement of a decidedly working-class hotel in a decidedly working-class neighborhood in Paris, listening to what must have been a top 40 radio morning had the opposite effect. It was exactly what the moment required. Similarly, the soundtrack of my family’s former restaurant in Amsterdam in the 2000s was whatever the family member or senior employee in charge of the counter (and therefore the CD player) at any given moment wanted to play. Any given day, from breakfast to late night dining, in increments of a few hours, the restaurant’s soundtrack switched back on forth between classical music, hip hop, R&B, minimal techno, Latin music, jazz, indie rock and soul (spontaneous Jackson 5 sing-alongs by the staff included).

Regarding volume, the only barometer was whether it seemed too loud or not loud enough, or alternatively, whether or not guests complained. Believe it or not, it worked. It felt real because it was real. People respond to that. To this day, I’m convinced that it was a crucial part of our charm, which in turn was a crucial part of our success.

All that is to say that there is a lot to consider when deciding which music to play in a restaurant. I would certainly recommend keeping some of the more scientific facts I mentioned in mind when curating a playlist, but if you ask me, at the end of the day, authenticity is king.

Marius Zürcher

About the author:

The co-owner & founder of start-up 1520 in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, Marius Zürcher was a participant at FCSI’s ‘Millennials’ focused roundtable at INTERGASTRA 2018.