The last time I visited the topic of restaurant merchandise, we were in the middle of a pandemic.
Social distancing was required, restaurants were closed, and some businesses—like Ray’s Bar in New York City—were selling branded merchandise to supplement the drop in income due to mandated shutdowns.
Since then, branded and special-edition merchandise at restaurants have taken on a life of their own.
The Guardian called restaurant merchandise “the new band tees,” while fast food restaurants like McDonald’s are now enlisting celebrities like Saweetie to promote their branded merchandise.
It’s tempting to say the pandemic gave the restaurant merchandise trend a shot in the arm, but the lingering enthusiasm suggests there’s more to it.
“Why can’t someone be just as enthusiastic about their favorite maker of challah bread as they are about their favorite band?” said Andrea Hernandez, creator of snack-focused newsletter Snaxshot.
These aren’t standalone examples, however. Restaurants are now discovering the deep-rooted link between one’s identity and one’s favorite eatery.
Take Uncle Paulie’s Deli as another example. There, branded sweatshirts go for $150, while mesh shorts run for $65. As of this writing, many of these offerings are completely sold out online.
Carlos Quirarte, co-owner of Ray’s Bar, says Ray’s merchandise drops (typically in batches of 200-500 units) sell out within 24 hours online. At the bar itself, it takes a mere ten minutes before merchandise is completely sold out.
“We can’t stock it,” Quirarte said. “The sell-outs happen every time. Our merch has become a symbol for our regulars.”
So what’s fueling this demand?
In the case of Ray’s, celebrity associations certainly don’t hurt: Actors Justin Theroux and Nicholas Braun are partners in the business venture. But Ray’s has also taken a unique approach. The bar’s aesthetic is supposed to be “dive,” and the merch reflects that.
They’ve even collaborated with legacy brands like Filson to create custom branded hats. The success of both brands is rooted, in part, to how both lend themselves to cultural cache.
Like the music you listen to, the place you eat is becoming something of a status symbol.
Take Erewhon in Los Angeles as another example. It’s not a dive bar like Ray’s—it’s a grocery store. But its celebrity following is no less notorious.
When Erewhon drops a collection of branded merchandise, it’s with the pomp of a well-known fashion label. The prices reflect that, too, as they’re selling $150 hoodies and $125 sweats.
But this trend is not all about status-chasing.
Branded merchandise also gives consumers an extra way to vote with their dollars. A branded t-shirt, sweatshirt, or hat gives customers another way to support restaurants, bars, and eateries they love.
Consider the example of The Churchill in Phoenix, a community gathering space and open-air eatery. They too tapped into branded merchandise to stay open during the pandemic, and have continued to lean into this additional revenue stream.
“The shirt had a cool design and was timely,” said one buyer, content strategist Micah Gause. “They tapped into the ‘sad and lonely, but trying to keep my friends safe’ side of the pandemic that many of us experienced. The shirts were at a higher price point, but the sentiment was very much ‘save your favorite small businesses.’”
The bottom line here is that an obvious trend has emerged: What started as a stop-gap solution during an uncertain period is now a cultural norm.
Branded restaurant merchandise is following in the footsteps of streetwear as a way for people to represent the places they love and the communities they feel part of.