One evening, with some mates, I wondered into some weird dark gothic building just off Hoxton Square in East London. Inside it was like some fetish club with stained glass windows on the ceiling, depicting a demonic last supper with skeletons, I felt a little scared. The ridiculously heavy rock music drowned out any chance of conversation. We sat in a restaurant resembling something like the Thunderdrome from Mad Max or a piece of Iron Maiden album artwork. Our food order arrived in a pile on an aluminium tray. It was like being in a prison canteen, but with poorer service. This place had bad manners and was over styled to the point of vulgarity and I fucking loved it. In front of me sat a scruffy burger, I started to chomp it down, meat juices running down my chin and elbows, and before I knew it, it’d been devoured. It was perhaps the best burger of my life. After getting our fill and knocking back a few beers we left. Ears ringing and smelling like beef juice we felt like we’d just experienced something religious, godly or at least satanic.
This was MEAT mission, it was about 6 years ago these guys created something strong, ahead of the burger curve, something bold that was indelible on my mind. To be honest I was probably served a slightly better than average burger, but I was sold something else, escapism, a brand, something new, a lifestyle, an attitude, but above all I had an experience, all packaged up with a soundtrack to match. Fucking hilarious.
So on the subject of music and to go with our usual end of year list of albums and play list, I thought it’d be good to write about the importance of music in the hospitality industry. It’s up there with service, interior design, the food, the location, it’s all connected and many times I’ve noticed the music or lack of it, brings all the other shit down. Because without good ambience, what’s the point?
Music is synonymous with food, but more importantly, music should be looked at as an ingredient, it brings a lot to the party. Sound can actually change the flavour of food. Professor Charles Spence from Oxford University has proved this. He has worked with Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, and with Ferran Adria's research kitchen in Spain. He’s also written books on the subject. So like all ingredients, sound needs to be treated with respect and consideration. I’d like to highlight some points and bring to your attention; how to get the most out of the sounds that bring so much to a recipe. You may be involved in the industry or just a customer, but I hope you find my points interesting. Our business if far from perfect, but I just want to bring up the idea of consideration in the sound department.
Firstly, picking the right style of music, a genre that fits with your food, a good tempo, something your audience will like. Serving high tea to a bunch of pensioners in a stately home along side hip-hop probably won’t work. However, a bunch of millennials gulping down some matcha lattes in an urban café might just love some Jurassic 5 with their vegan granola bar.
Audio equipment must be considered, there’s nothing wrong with a shitty FM radio shrilling out the noise of BBC Radio 1. It has its place. In my mind this style of audio fits with a greasy spoon, something like the Caf in Eastenders. But I feel the quality of audio is reflective of the quality of ingredients. However you can still fuck up the good ingredients, just the same as a good sound system, what I’m referring to here, is acoustics. Soften the room, get some acoustic foam in the corners, buy some plants, point the speakers in the right direction. The ricochet of sonic waves will pollute the space to like a sewer; you may as well have shit bouncing off the walls.
Volume is a tricky one, you obviously want customers to hear the tunes, but not piss on their conversation. Having to compete with audio levels is never fun, loud beats are for dancing. Although I’d say the volume in our café is slightly too loud, but the compromise to this is the energy it creates, so we think it’s worth it.
We’re super lucky to employ a bunch of like minded staff who understand our brand and culture, so we leave it to them with a few instructions; no gangster rap or heavy hip-hop, no metal or rock and no depressing downbeat shit. But to compile a play-list on Spotify or Apple Music is pretty easy. We have a Bluetooth amp that connects to our iPad till system which is ok, Sonos make some sweet WiFi systems, but you’ll need at least £1000 for this + your music subscription + your PRS/PPL. The most immaculate sound system I’ve experienced is in Alan Yau’s Bakery called Princi in Soho. They have a Funktion One system that bellows Italian classical music whist you scoff baked goods like you’re in a Michelangelo sculpted dream.
The music you choose will reflect your brand and company, so independent cafes are wise to choose music that is not played in their mainstream competitors, this will help set them apart. We like a customer who has a sense of adventure, that’s why have four different coffees that change every week; our customers are keen for new experiences, new flavours, new sounds. This is obviously reflected in our music choices. Although sometimes we love to play Bob Dylan or Fleetwood Mac, or perhaps some classic jazz or blues albums. We like albums, however James Lowe’s Lyles does a pretty sweet track list on Spotify that’s worth checking out. It has a eclectic range of tracks and is a musical annexe to his establishment for the public to use.
All of these choices are geared towards creating the right vibe or ambience. The experience you want to give people in the hospitality industry, is one of the senses, which are taste, touch, sight, smell & sound. Sound is the subject we’re on, and you can interpret the others in a similar way. For example you could fill your seating area with deck chairs, turn the heating up to full, fit strobe lighting and paint the walls with neon colours, serve all food with the hottest chillies and play gabber speedcore turned up to 11. My point isn’t just for comic effect, the exaggerated examples demonstrate that all the choices you make should be considered and justified, otherwise you’re just doing things for the sake of it. Black Axe Mangal does it right, sure my mums not going to like a kebab shop serving up offal, cooked in a wood fired oven with Kiss painted on the side of it. But the ex St John chef Lee Tiernan, has created something so special, it could never be recreated in multiple locations, he owns it, it’s an extension of his personality and no amount of investment can recreate it.
One of the joys of being an independent place is that we can break free from the mediocrity of the mainstream. No need to pass the salt, we can punch blandness in the face with big flavours, aggressive and opinionated blog posts and of course, some banging tunes.
Exploding Bakery 2017 Albums (Apple)
Exploding Bakery 2017 Albums (Spotify)