When it comes to America’s obsession with dining out, restaurant branded merchandise is the perfect way to flash brand loyalty. From Turkey and the Wolf’s colorful trucker hats to James Beard winner Alon Shaya’s hummus and pita earrings, the days of Hard Rock Cafe ruling restaurant fashion are long gone.
So, too, is the message that a restaurant logo is simply an easy way to spot tourists. This year a T-shirt was used to raise awareness about a rent hike for a beloved New York City bodega. And it’s becoming commonplace for streetwear designers like Kith to drop limited-release collections with high-end restaurants most people can’t get into, like Carbone. Even this perennially unfashionable writer had enough sense to rep his favorite food brands back in the day, with Nestlé Quik and Reese’s Pieces T-shirts being essentials in my middle school wardrobe.
Despite the growth in fashionable food collaborations over the past several years, the one question that many chefs and restaurants choose not to answer is whether or not their merchandise is a legitimate moneymaker or just window dressing. As I discovered, it’s not that restaurants are trying to cover up their losses. Rather, few are willing to admit how lucrative merchandise partnerships really are.
You are what you eat, so dress the part
Goodlife, a men’s wear brand with enough capital to actually open a store on Manhattan’s ridiculously expensive Bleecker Street, is a company embracing the fashionable restaurant merchandise movement. “It’s mandatory for us they fit our image and ethos,” says Goodlife founder and co-CEO Christopher Molnar of the restaurant partners he’s worked with over the years.
One such partner is Michael Chernow of Seamore’s, who’s committed to serving sustainable seafood across Seamore’s locations in New York City. “There are major restaurant chains with whom we would never collaborate because of their lack of commitment to responsible manufacturing and organic food sourcing,” Molnar says.
The success of Goodlife’s collaborations is just one example of why these types of deals aren’t going away anytime soon. “It’s a category that has grown for us 300% year over year,” Molnar cites. Goodlife’s founder added that the real value for producing hospitality-branded merchandise for his company had more to do with brand marketing efforts than overall sales.
When dining rooms and dressing rooms collide
Merchandise displays are not just relegated to behind the register these days. Visionary chefs have transformed dining areas to incorporate dedicated space for merchandise. “Ten percent to 12% of sales is attributed to retail,” estimates Erik Bruner-Yang, the owner and executive chef of Washington, D.C.’s Maketto. Bruner-Yang incorporated his experiences in Paris, Cambodia, and Taiwan to bring a taste of night markets to his restaurant. Guests here can indulge in a bowl of xiao long bao dumplings, purchase designer jeans courtesy of A.P.C., or even stock up on free pencils when available.
Reading Maketto’s website might make you wonder if you’ve stumbled upon the specials for the evening or the highlights from Milan Fashion Week. Oftentimes, it’s both. “We wouldn’t be as interesting if we didn’t have this retail component,” adds Bruner-Yang. Though Maketto sells a variety of items approved by Bruner-Yang, the chef notes his restaurant’s merchandise tends to leave shelves the quickest.
How to build a merch store if you’re a hospitality company
Opened by David Kaplan and Ravi DeRossi on New Year’s Eve 2006, Death & Co. helped revitalize New York’s cocktail scene by stirring and shaking ingredients in a way guests never knew they needed. And if you’re wondering how death plans to rise again, the modern-day speakeasy launched its online retail platform, Death & Company Market, in May 2019.
“Very shortly after we opened, someone asked when would we be writing a book,” recalls Kaplan, who along with coauthors Nick Fauchald and Alex Day wound up releasing Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails in October 2014, about seven and a half years after beginning service. The book, which included over 500 cocktail recipes as well as insightful tips on the art of drinking, received praise across the hospitality industry. “Having the book be the first retail expression of Death & Co. was incredibly influential,” Kaplan says. The book became a lesson in how Death & Co. could promote its ethos outside its walls.
At the same time, it helped Kaplan and his team understand that there was a way they could provide guests ownership of their experience beyond the hour or two spent at their bar. “We’re not providing them anything,” Kaplan says. “If they want a piece of Death & Co., they either have to steal a menu or take a pen.”
With a SeedInvest campaign raising almost $3 million and providing ownership of Death & Co. to several hundred investors, the opportunity to strategically enter the wearables category became a good fit. “We only tackled this when we felt we could create a real business plan around this and were able to seek out collaborative vendors that had more knowledge and expertise in this particular area,” Kaplan explains.
According to estimated projections created in collaboration with Death & Co.’s retail designer and retail marketing and fulfillment agency, the company is expected to generate over $88,000 in sales for 2019 and just under $275,000 for 2020. (Projections were based on information provided by Death & Co. to Fortune.)
“We’re kind of at that midway point. In 18 months, we want this to be profitable,” Kaplan says. What started as a fun way to connect staff and guests has grown into a viable way of attracting new fans for Death & Co., as Kaplan adds: “A T-shirt isn’t content, it’s an extension of your brand.”
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