Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tin Drum Asiacafé May Need to Slow its Roll

Tin Drum is debuting a new logo at its North Druid Hills location 
Fast casual chain experiencing serious growing pains.

Atlanta-based Tin Drum Asiacafé opened its first location near Georgia Tech in 2003.  Founded by entrepreneur Steven Chan, the restaurant proved popular and Chan expanded the concept to a few additional locations. A well situated, corner location in Sembler's Perimeter Place opened in 2006, followed by another at Sembler's redeveloped Lindbergh Plaza also in 2006.  During the summer of 2008, a fourth location was opened on Broad Street near Georgia State.

Before the others opened, I'd make a point of visiting the location at Perimeter Place: the food was fresh, the prices were right and my experiences were mostly good.  While I now live closer to more locations than ever, I've avoided them recently since new pricing and menu changes took place.  The most unfortunate of the changes, in my opinion,  was the elimination of the "drum roll" menu item.  The previously fresh made wrap was replaced with a cheaper, packaged and "refreshed" menu item that was a sad excuse for the former.  

Chan began franchising Tin Drum in 2011.

Over the next few years, Chan added a few other locations bringing the chain to about a dozen including one in Birmingham at the popular The Summit, a lifestyle center home to Flip Burger Boutique, Chuy's and Alabama's only Saks Fifth Avenue.

In September 2012, Atlanta-based BIP Opportunities Fund LP took a minority stake in Tin Drum to "provide the necessary  capital to fuel the emerging brand’s expansion strategy."   After the investment, Chan was quoted to have said he planned to "double the company’s corporate and franchise unit base (then 10 units) by the end of 2012."

Last September, Tin Drum announced it had hired two former Arby's executives to assist in taking the growing chain to the next level. Ray Biondi was named Chief Operating Officer and Joe Ippolito was named Vice President of Operations.   The chain also brought on a few other former Arby's employees including Jen Forbes who was named Tin Drum's Director of Training for franchisees and Dawn Agueros who became Director of Human Resources.

This scenario of bringing on industry veterans to lead a growing Atlanta-based fast casual Asian eatery sounded all too familiar to me, as it has happened at least once before.

Almost a decade ago, in September 2004, Richard Chey of Doc Chey's Noodle House enlisted the help of industry veterans Dick Rivera and John C. Metz, Jr. to help grow his fledgling fast casual concept.  Dick Rivera, an industry legend, previously served as President and COO of Darden Restaurants, President of RARE Hospitality, Inc., and as President and CEO of T.G.I. Friday's.  John Metz, Jr. is a chef who co-owns Aqua Blue Restaurant & Bar, Hi Life kitchen & cocktails and Sterling Spoon Catering, a contract management company, and previously served as Executive Chef and Director of R&D for Carlson Worldwide.

Doc Chey's was smaller then than Tin Drum is today. The first Doc Chey's location opened in Morningside on North Highland Avenue in 1997.  A short time later, a second location was added on North Decatur Road in Emory Village near Emory University.

Shortly after Rivera and Metz joined the company, Doc Chey's claimed to have "30 franchise agreements signed" with more in the works.  Doc Chey's did grow to include locations in both North and South Carolina, Orlando, Florida and a handful of additional Atlanta area locations.  Sadly though, the growth had an impact on the restaurant's culture as suburban and out of state locations struggled.   Locations in Athens, Sandy Springs, Vinings, Orlando and Greenville, South Carolina closed, while one in Asheville, North Carolina, which opened in 2001, remains open (but does not accept the company's Karma loyalty card nor its gift cards.)

I spoke with John Metz, Jr. about his involvement with the company.  He said that during his and Rivera's time there they worked to standardize operations and make the restaurant more capable of growth.  He feels like they were successful in doing so and added that he did not leave on bad terms.  The reason, as I guessed, was his inability to juggle so many concepts at the same time.  He already had two of his own full service restaurants and a catering business and was now involved with Doc Chey's and had partnered with Rivera and others to open the first Marlow's Tavern in Alpharetta in late 2004.  In 2005, both Metz and Rivera left Doc Chey's to focus on the growth of Marlow's Tavern. (Today the Marlow's chain has grown to include eleven locations in Georgia and a pair in Florida.)

I also met with Richard Chey to get his take on Tin Drum's growth.  Chey, a friend of Chan's, said he would caution against excessive or uncontrolled growth.  Chey compared the requirements both in labor and in cost of a Willy's (burrito) type operation and of Doc Chey's or Tin Drum and said while they both compete in the "fast casual" segment, they are very different concepts.  Chey explained that the skills needed to cook with the wok and prepare the various ingredients needed for the dishes is closer to that of a full service restaurant.  Willy's, on the other hand, operates similar to a Moe's, Subway or Uncle Maddio's.  In these instances, the customer watches as their requests and ingredient choices are turned into a meal in a matter of minutes.  Chey went on to say that the skilled cooks needed for concepts like Doc Chey's and Tin Drum seem to be harder and harder to find.  Chey attributed the waning supply of skilled cooks to a "generational change amongst Atlanta's large Hispanic population," long a significant source of such staff.  

Rich credits Dick and John with instituting some standardized processes and says that the concept simply was not ready to franchise. 

Tin Drum's food and menu labeling came under fire when an 11Alive investigation found that at least one menu item contained far more fat and calories than Tin Drum claimed. 

In one case, the Mango Chicken was said to have 6 grams of fat but was tested to have 25!  The calorie count was said to be 660 but tests showed calorie counts of 1107 and 1230. 

Chan said of the findings :

"We need to go back and revisit all the ingredients that we've used when we were coming up with our calculation and then now what ingredient we have changed."

Chemical analysis was performed after the food was cooked whereas Chan indicated that his restaurant uses the labels of raw ingredients to find a "theoretical" number of what the end result should be.

Chan told Erin Dostal of Nations Restaurant News in January that the company would open "seven to ten new locations in 2013," that  didn't happen.  Given the Roswell opening, Birmingham closure and opening in Kennesaw, there was a net gain of one store in 2013.

Interestingly, one real estate professional says they [Tin Drum] "follow deals" and have bailed on deals without reason or explanation.  Perhaps there were other locations in the works that Tin Drum simply walked away from.

Some units that have opened have been in inferior locations. It would seem as though the company is sacrificing its once stringent site selection in favor of growth.  

Last year, an existing Tim Drum franchisee, Asad Mazahir, opened a new location in Kennesaw, not too far from Kennesaw State.  I'm no Kennesaw expert, although I do know exactly where the restaurant opened.  Sandwiched into a 1600 square foot space in Barrett Creek Plaza,  the restaurant has limited street visibility and a far worse location to those of Cheeseburger Bobby's and Moe's Southwest Grill, two other restaurants within the center.

This past December, Tin Drum closed their poorly located restaurant in Emory Village and subsequently announced they were "moving" to the Village at Druid Hills.  In their new home they will join Willy's Mexicana Grill, Penn Station Subs and Newk's eatery within the new center.  Newk's scored the prime corner space with great visibility, while the Tin Drum, as in Kennesaw, is just stuck in the middle.  

In early February, Tin Drum closed (for renovations) its north Buckhead location on Roswell Road.  Despite the renovation claim, the restaurant has been wiped from the corporate website.  Over three months later, the restaurant seems permanently closed.

When I broke news of the closure, many readers chimed in with their own gripes about the restaurant and theories as to why it closed.  

 "As a huge fan of TinDrum, this kinda upsets me. And this won't be the last of their closings either. I love the concept, but pricing and the ever changing menu is a big issue, at least for me. I hope they can find a balance because I'd hate to see this leave the market altogether."

"Their menu has been reformatted into something incoherent with hidden charges, and if the rest of the satellite stores look as slapdash as this one, I'd agree that cold is a good word to use. It's impersonal and cheap. Who knows? Maybe they really are renovating the Roswell/Wieuca store. Maybe they're adding a ceiling and some flooring, something they should've done before they opened."

"My hunch is the downfall of Tin Drum began when they received new funding or were bought by a PE shop (can't remember which one happened but it was one of them)."

A new Tin Drum is reportedly coming to Canton to a  new center that recently welcomed a Chipotle Mexican Grill. Similar to the Kennesaw location, this is not a "prime" site and may face staffing issues.

Tin Drum's lone out of state location, at The Summit in Birmingham, quietly closed this past September. 

Chan previously operated a pair of "Wonderful World Burgers & Fries" eateries, one downtown and one at Emory Village.  Both locations are now closed.  

The chain currently operates a total of eleven locations with plans to "add at least fifteen additional."


Anonymous said...

Very Interesting. Never knew what Tin Drum was. Probably will never go there.

Jeff A. Taylor said...

Very telling. I've been trying to explain to people the difference between food assemblers and line cooks -- the Tin Drum saga makes it very clear. If your concept started with and depends on line cooks, moving to a simpler food assembling menu is very dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Can we blame all these Arby's people for making Tin Drum terrible? Five or six years ago, this was a good restaurant.

Anonymous said...

I haven't been in 5 or so years since I moved away from the Perimeter location. I remember it being the first time I'd been to a place where they would wander around aimlessly trying to bring your order (they intentionally didn't use table flags for some reason.) It always felt like management was nonexistent and they must have survived on the kitchen and menu alone. Your background seems to confirm that.

Anonymous said...

When they raised prices, eliminated about half of the portion size and replaced their unsweet tea option with green tea (sorry, that's important to me because I can't drink green tea and despise sweet tea), I was out. The Perimeter location is decent/mediocre, but the Lindbergh-Sidney Marcus location is on a steep downhill run.

Anonymous said...

Used to be a fan, but when they raised prices, cut portion sizes in half and replaced their unsweet tea option with green tea (sorry, that's important to me - green tea makes me sick and I despise sweet tea), I was out. Have been to the Perimeter location once this year. It's still OK. But the Lindbergh-Sidney Marcus spot is on a steep downhill run and I stopped going last year.

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