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Hearing Tom Waits rumble through "Jockey Full of Bourbon" while you're dripping Tabasco on a barbacoa bowl at Chipotle may give you pause. Or you might take comfort in the smooth rhythm of Peter Tosh's "Coming In Hot" as you wait in the lunch-rush line. The music selections at the Denver-based fast-casual giant's stores hit the spot between far-out stoner radio and hip DJ sets, a brainy mix of new indie artists, alternative-radio favorites and international jams.
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However you feel about Chipotle's musical selections, you have one man to thank — or blame. Christopher Golub is the guy who programs the songs for all of Chipotle's more than 1,400 restaurants, making him responsible for an essential piece in founder Steve Ells's restaurant vision.
"When [Ells] opened the first one, over on Evans, his belief was that he always thought music was an important part of the overall restaurant experience," Golub says. "So he began with his programming at the first store, and it went on from there. He always kept a focus on music as an integral part of the experience." Today Golub runs an enterprise called Studio Orca that's based in Brooklyn, where his company creates "music identity" for a number of different brands. Chipotle is his biggest client, and you'll find him at Chipotle's Cultivate Festival in Denver next month, spinning his restaurant programming between music sets.
A refugee from the East Coast DJ scene, Golub worked as a manager at the Wynkoop Brewing Company and moved on to building and designing Denver's ultra-hip Swimclub32 before ditching Denver and the restaurant life to rediscover music. Four years ago, he was tapped to take over music-curation efforts at Chipotle. "Steve asked me to come up with a sample playlist of what I thought might work in the restaurant," Golub recalls. "Having spent a lot of time in Colorado, I had a good feeling for what was going on there."
But music programming at Chipotle is about more than just a feeling. "It also has to have what I call 'texture of sound,'" Golub explains. "You know that if you go into a store, you've got the small, hard surfaces. You've got concrete floors, a lot of windows, hard walls and a lot of cooking gear and tile. So that doesn't work with certain songs." For example, the high, tenuous yowl of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke wreaks havoc with the steel and concrete of a Chipotle buildout.
That means you won't hear "Kid A" at Chipotle — but what will you hear? "It's hard to put my finger on exactly what song makes it and what song doesn't," Golub says. "We do our very best to put on programming that's not on mainstream radio, on Internet channels. We're not playing the big hits of the world at all. We're trying to find emerging stars. Emerging artists have this certain feel to their music."
An average playlist Golub puts together may have more than 500 songs and be in rotation for no more than a month, to keep the song selection fresh. Once he's finished a program, it's streamed to every Chipotle restaurant around the globe. "We don't program for certain markets; we program based off of what we feel works," he says. "So when you have a burrito in Iowa, or Paris, France, or London, England, or Canada, you're hearing the same program and the same vibe." As with Chipotle's menu, everyone everywhere gets the same aural experience.
Studio Orca also makes use of a subtle technique called dayparting. This technique is nothing new to radio and club DJs, and back in the '40s and '50s, the Muzak Company would program workplace music specifically to increase productivity, a technique called "Stimulus Progression." Using similar tactics at Chipotle today, music during the lunch rush might have a quicker BPM than something playing during the 4 p.m. doldrums.
But Golub's personal approach to getting toes tapping makes Chipotle programming much more than sonic wallpaper. "One of the greatest joys," he says, "is when we see someone lifting up a cell phone and Shazam-ing a song, or just singing along to a song."