Tin Drum Asiacafé specializes in Asian-inspired street food served in a fast-casual setting, a niche that’s ripe for growth in the Southeast U.S., according to owner and founder Steven Chan.
Chan, a native of Hong Kong, wanted to capture the energy of city streets and encapsulate it in his restaurants. His first location, which opened at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, in 2003, was an ideal place to experiment with the concept, he said.
“The people around it really enjoyed the atmosphere, being in a college town,” Chan said. “The inspiration of Tin Drum is that we’re inspired by the food and energy on the streets of Asia.”
“It’s kind of like eating by the curbside,” he said. “Very unpretentious. Very real.”
Since 2003, Atlanta-based Tin Drum has grown to 12 units. Chan said he plans to open seven to 10 new locations in 2013, too. By tapping into the emerging Asian fast-casual market, Chan said he hopes his chain will continue to grow steadily for years to come.
Nation's Restaurant News recently spoke with Chan about his vision for the chain.
What sets Tin Drum apart from other fast-casual restaurants?
I think it’s the flavor profile. Asian food is not new. Chinese food has been around [in the U.S.] for a long time, obviously. People are looking for something a little more exotic in nature. We can make things a little bit spicy. Now is a good time to introduce new flavors. Customers are used to the spicier flavor profile they get from Tex Mex, and they can also get that from us.
Why did you choose to enter the fast-causal segment?
Fast casual, to me, is just a name. Really, we’re fresh to order. These days, a lot of QSR operators say they’re fast casual, but they’re not. We are fresh to order, so we are a true fast casual. We cook the food to order, how you order it. It’s no more than 10 minutes from when you order to getting your food.
Who is your average customer?
They’re between the ages of 18-34. They’re high school students, college students and young professionals, mostly. In a way we feel like we’re planting the seeds for our customers in the future.
Tell me a bit about your menu.
The millionaire walks the same street as the hobo. Our menu is really for everybody. If you want traditional Chinese food, we have that. But if... you want street-food-inspired Korean tacos, we have that as well.
Describe Tin Drum’s growth plan. Will you rely mostly on franchisees?
To be honest with you, it’s a bit too early to really say. Whenever we go into a new market, we want to have a corporate location to support the franchisees, however. If there’s a market with 17 Tin Drums, we might have two corporate locations so that we can support them. There may come a time when we develop corporate locations and then sell them to franchisees, as well. We currently have two corporate locations.
Do you think you’ll ever expand Tin Drum outside of the Southeast?
The focus right now is the Southeast. Once again, it’s about support and knowing how to support the restaurants. It also helps to be able to drive to our other cities with locations. We take baby steps.
In October, Atlanta-based private-equity firm BIP Opportunities Fund said it would take a minority interest in Tin Drum. Will this help advance your growth plan?
Absolutely. We closed the investment transaction back in September. From that, we’re really building up our infrastructure. After that I think we’ll feel really, really comfortable.
Are you seeking other investors?
We’re not looking for any other investors at the moment. It’s been a terrific relationship with the folks at BIP. And I think a concept like Tin Drum really is the next generation of Asian restaurant in the U.S. It’s fresh, offers variety, [and has] reasonable prices.