With founder’s return, Tin Drum team thinks big
Sylvia Chan, Steven’s wife, based Tin Drum’s revamped dishes on recipes from his Hong Kong family.
It’s not the typical midlife crisis for restaurateurs—to earn a master’s degree in architecture from Georgia Tech with a focus on the future of retail. But that has been Steven Chan’s unusual path for the last few years.
Why? “Because school is cool,” said Chan, who’s 49. “I never went to graduate school. From an intellectual standpoint, graduate school will help a person to grow” and learn “how to think.”
The founder of Tin Drum Asian Kitchen, the Atlanta-based chain he sold to private equity firm BIP in 2012, is now back in the original game. He’s bought a 25 percent stake in Tin Drum; brought in two of his top franchisees, Altaf and Amisha Popatiya, as 25 percent investors and executives; and signed on Matt Schinelli, the first Tin Drum franchisee, to head franchise development. BIP, now called 10 Point Capital, retains a quarter of ownership with Tropical Smoothie Cafe owning the final fourth.
Tin Drum is starting to grow again, after languishing with just a handful of units under 10 Point’s watch while sister brand Tropical Smoothie ballooned to more than 800 stores today. Tin Drum was set to open in Savannah, Georgia, a new market, and has signed deals to open five units in Houston and more in Atlanta.
Tin Drum also has revamped the menu under the direction of Silvia Chan, Steven’s wife, a native of Thailand who has adapted recipes from her husband’s Hong Kong family. One standout is a fiery-looking fried chicken sandwich said by one fan to “be better than Popeyes.”
Chan, with a headful of lofty ideas who sounds like, well, a grad student when he spins them out, is thinking about the restaurant business in a completely new way these days. “I can utilize all the new learned knowledge” about the future of retail. “Because it is changing. The landscape of real estate, of space and why people go to the space is changing,” he said, adding he’s thinking about how technology can “impact the business model, so this centuries-old business model can thrive in the 21st century.”
Schinelli has a more quotidian task at hand: growing units from the current 10. A Tin Drum franchise costs $351,800 to $563,000, with average unit volumes of $963,931.
He said Tin Drum benefited from BIP’s emphasis on systems. “The actual operational systems and technology within the company are far superior to any emerging brand of 10 units.” But as Tropical Smoothie boomed, “we got overshadowed. We became not so much the forefront focus, so now we’re bringing ourselves back into focus with a solid, committed team.”
The Popitya husband-and-wife duo decided to buy in because of “the passion we had for Tin Drum,” said Altaf, who will serve as COO. For Amisha, who will head up marketing, that love started early. “I used to eat Tin Drum about four times a week when I was 17. This isn’t your ordinary food experience.”
Chan & Co. plans to tear down and rebuild its flagship store, on the campus of Georgia Tech in an area called Technology Square, so it becomes a laboratory of sorts for Tin Drum and the restaurant industry as a whole. “We can do research” with PhD students, Chan said, “on energy waste, water consumption,” and much more.
Chan is also developing Pancake Social, an all-day brunch concept with a coffee program, that is the vision of former Chick-fil-A marketing executive Dan Jacobson. “So with that vision, I’ve reached out to my colleagues in the industry,” including James Beard award-winning Chef Anne Quatrano and Octane co-founder Tony Riffel.
But soon Chan is riffing on more topics, including making Tin Drum as “inclusive” a concept as possible. “We can make an argument that all restaurants have a social function,” he said. “How do you make something more inclusive? When something is free it’s totally inclusive because everybody can enjoy it. It’s like air. Air is free, whether you’re a building owner or a hobo on the street.
“So when Tin Drum says inclusive, I guess we’re talking about affordability,” he said. “Because we believe that good products should not be enjoyed by an exclusive group of people and they should be inclusive to everyone.”
Class dismissed, and the team gets back to the business of growing Tin Drum.