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Restaurants pick fresher background music to lure younger diners

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By Orlando Sentinel
Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin have crooned through the speakers of Olive Garden dining rooms for years. Lately, though, diners at the Italian chain have been hearing Adele, David Bowie and U2.

Some casual-dining restaurants are undergoing musical makeovers as they try to attract more cash and customers — especially younger ones — by playing cooler tunes.

Olive Garden and Red Lobster, owned by Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants, recently revamped their soundtracks.

Winter Park, Fla.-based Sonny's BBQ is replacing its mostly country lineup with one heavier on blues and rock 'n' roll. Tony Roma's is aiming for a more familiar sound with its new mix of '90s alternative and today's Top 40.

To lure a generation that constantly shares the latest releases online, restaurants can't keep offering the same old song and dance, branding experts say. Changing a restaurant's music can signal to consumers it is keeping up with the times, said Ron Boucher, creative director at the Orlando branding agency Push.

“Knowing what's now and cool, it lends sort of an air of credibility,” said Boucher, whose company has worked with chains including Sonny's. “You're not stuck in your heyday of 1988 or whatever.”

In many cases, a shift in sound accompanies a larger overhaul of an aging brand. Olive Garden, for example, is reinventing itself as it tries to reverse declining sales. Its changes include remodeling, new server uniforms and trendier dishes. Adding soft rock, pop and modern Italian songs was a natural extension of that, said Jay Spenchian, Olive Garden's executive vice president of marketing.

Singers such as Sinatra still waft through the speakers but not nearly as often. Spenchian said the idea is “to send a different message and signal about Olive Garden and bring it more up to date.”

Like many other chains, Olive Garden hired an outside company to develop its new sound, which Spenchian said is meant to evoke “a feeling where it's an Italian gathering place.” It tested songs in some restaurants. And Olive Garden executives kicked back some music — for example, dance tracks that Spenchian described as “a little too frenetic.”

“If you've got Lady Gaga in there, I just don't think that's what an Olive Garden guest would expect right now,” he said.

The 1,000-title playlist will be updated every couple of months to keep it fresh. Tempos vary depending on the time of day, with lunchtime calling for more upbeat music to match the pace of diners on the go.

Olive Garden's sister chain Red Lobster has replaced an easy-listening soundtrack with a faster-paced one featuring more current hits. Now customers will hear “Rumor Has It” by Adele and “Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake. Spokeswoman Heidi Schauer described the mix in an email as “more vibrant, relevant and energetic.”

Tony Roma's played jazz and Rat Pack-era tunes for years. Recently, though, it switched to a soundtrack more recognizable to patrons in their 30s and 40s. The playlist includes “Lips Like Sugar” by Echo & the Bunnymen and “Good Life” by One Republic.

Rather than hiring an outside consultant, two corporate employees scoured the Internet and listened to satellite radio for inspiration. Guests were hungering for music they actually remember, said marketing director Monique Yeager, who helped select the new titles.

“You have more fun when you're listening to songs you know the words to,” Yeager said. “We got complaints on the Rat Pack music. People would say, ‘Oh, my God, can you change the music?' ”

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