The rise of restaurant merchandise and its cultural cache

The last time I brought up the subject of restaurant merchandise, we were in the middle of a pandemic.

Social distancing was necessary, restaurants were closed and some businesses, such as Ray’s Bar in New York, were selling branded goods to make up for the drop in revenue due to the mandatory closures.

Since then, branded products and special restaurant editions have taken on a life of their own.

The Guardian called the restaurant merchandise “the band’s new t-shirts”, while fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s are now bringing in celebrities like Saweetie to promote their branded wares.

It’s tempting to say the pandemic has given the foodservice trend a boost, but the lingering enthusiasm suggests there’s more to it.

“Why can’t someone be as enthusiastic about their favorite challah bread maker as they are about their favorite band?” said Andrea Hernandez, creator of snack-focused newsletter Snaxshot.

It references the PANACHE X Challah Dolly collaboration, whose limited-edition handbags sold out within a day.

These are not stand-alone examples, however. Restaurants are now discovering the deep connection between his identity and his favorite restaurant.

Take Uncle Paulie’s Deli as another example. There, branded sweatshirts are $150, while mesh shorts are $65. As of this writing, many of these offerings are sold entirely online.

Carlos Quirarte, co-owner of Ray’s Bar, says Ray’s merchandise (usually in batches of 200-500 units) sells out online within 24 hours. At the bar itself, it only takes ten minutes before the merchandise is completely sold out.

“We can’t store it,” Quirarte said. “Sales happen every time. Our merchandise has become a symbol for our regulars.

So what is fueling this demand?

In Ray’s case, celebrity pairings certainly don’t hurt: actors Justin Theroux and Nicholas Braun are partners in the business venture. But Ray’s also took a unique approach. The aesthetic of the bar is supposed be “dipped”, and the merchandising reflects that.

They’ve even collaborated with mainstream brands like Filson to create custom branded hats. The success of both brands is, in part, how both lend themselves to cultural cache.

Like the music you listen to, where you eat becomes a status symbol.

Take Erewhon in Los Angeles as another example. It’s not a bar like Ray’s, it’s a grocery store. But his celebrity following is no less notorious.

When Erewhon launches a collection of branded products, it is with the pomp of a well-known fashion brand. The prices reflect that too, as they sell $150 hoodies and $125 sweatshirts.

But this trend isn’t just about status hunting.

Branded products also provide consumers with an additional way to vote with their money. A branded t-shirt, sweatshirt, or hat gives customers another way to support the restaurants, bars, and eateries they love.

Take the example of the Churchill in Phoenix, a community gathering space and outdoor restaurant. They too tapped into branded products to stay open during the pandemic and continued to rely on this additional source of income.

“The shirt had a cool design and was timely,” said one shopper, content strategist Micah Gause. “They tapped into the ‘sad and lonely, but trying to protect my friends’ side of the pandemic that so many of us have been through. The shirts were priced higher, but the sentiment was more “Save your favorite small businesses”.

The bottom line here is that a clear trend has emerged: what started as a stopgap solution during uncertain times is now a cultural norm.

Branded restaurant products follow in the footsteps of streetwear as a way for people to represent the places they love and the communities they feel part of.