In the past few years, dozens of restaurants have been getting into the merch game. Whether it’s a simple keychain, a shirt, or even a skateboard, restaurant merchandise offers the chance to get your brand out there — and make a little extra cash. But there is a lot to consider when you are making the decision to sell merch. We talked to three restaurants that have successfully gotten into the game about their best advice.
Should you sell merchandise?
The first thing to understand about merchandise is that it is more of a marketing play than a financial one. Don’t count on merchandise to be your cash cow. Rather, see it as a chance to build brand loyalty and gain a larger following. Adam Rosenbaum, CEO of The Meatball Shop, says that selling merchandise has been about “getting folks to join the Meatballer lifestyle and help spread the brand. I’ve seen one of our hats worn all over the world.”
There are also a few factors to consider when making the decision. First, is selling merchandise in line with your brand? For The Meatball Shop, “it was a no-brainer,” says Rosenbaum. “We’ve always had a no-uniform policy for our staff but wanted to give our teams something to wear so they could show off their ‘Baller’ pride. Coming out with new pieces has become a highly anticipated event with our employees because we made sure to design merch with our staff in mind.”
Second, does merchandise make sense for where your restaurant is located? If your restaurant is situated in a big tourist city, according to Jean-Paul Bourgeois, chef of Blue Smoke in New York, “[Merchandise] is a great offering for those guests who want a ‘keepsake’ to bring home.”
Finally, do you have the resources to sell merchandise? “Creating and selling merch is definitely time-consuming,” says Rosenbaum, between managing inventory, doing orders, and working with a shipping company. “I would recommend pursuing it only if your team has the bandwidth to manage the process.”
What kind of merch should I sell?
First and foremost, your merchandise should be reflective of your company values and of how you want your brand to be perceived by those who may have never visited your restaurant. At The Meatball Shop, for example, Rosenbaum says, “We want the items to be fun and punchy. We take our food seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we want our gear to show it.” The Meatball Shop sells items like “Ballers” sweatshirts, Moscow Mule mugs, Grinder beanies, and VANS sneakers — light-hearted, youthful gear that represents their core values.
It’s also important to sell merchandise that fits in with your city. At Party Fowl, a fried chicken concept in Nashville, owner Austin Smith says “Hats are a big thing,” particularly because a large swath of his customers are bachelor and bachelorette parties during the summer and country music fans all year long. “Those folks love their hats. The SMASH hat once came out with a Nashville Predators hat, and I would say one in three households has that hat.”
When designing clothing, yet again, Smith stresses the importance of being mindful of your city and your clientele. “We wanted a shirt that looked good, and was comfortable — and fun,” he says. He came up with a shirt that says “Nashville Hot” as a nod to the popularity of Nashville Hot Chicken across the country. “Some places try and be too kitschy,” he adds. “We want to sell not just souvenirs but items that people can actually put into their wardrobe and throw on any day of the week.”
General tips for success:
Put your merchandise up front. Bourgeois recommends showcasing the merchandise right at the host stand so that it’s one of the first things that guests see as they are both entering and exiting the restaurant, making them more likely to make a spontaneous purchase.
Support local businesses. “Shipping will eat you alive,” cautions Smith. “Support your local businesses when you are buying materials, and they will support you back. And you’ll save on shipping dollars.”
Get creative. T-shirts and keychains are great but are there other types of merch you can sell that speak to who you are as a business? Nancy Cushman, co-owner of Hojoko in Boston, found success selling beer cozies, enamel pins, and guitar picks for the bands that play at the restaurant. Since music is at the core of the restaurant’s concept, “We wanted to have a collection of things you’d find in a band’s green room pre-show,” she says.
Make sure your branding is strong. Smith came up with his restaurant logo before he even had a menu because he wanted to make sure that he had a brand that would connect with his community. When coming up with a design, Bourgeois advises, “Ensure your branding is timeless but still has curb appeal.”
Display your prices. This is a small action item that can make an enormous difference, according to Smith. “If people can’t see a price, they won’t buy it,” he says. “They won’t come ask you how much it costs, especially if you are busy. They won’t wait to get your attention.” Also, he adds, “Make sure people can touch the product. If they can touch it, they are ten times more likely to buy it.”
Product placement is key. Bourgeois says, “If you are selling merchandise in your restaurant — like a signature sauce — then make sure that exact sauce in the exact same bottle is on the table for your guest to use during the meal.”
Do strategic collaborations. The Meatball Shop has had tons of success partnering with like-minded brands, such as Hedley & Bennett, Vans, and Carhartt. The company even did a skateboard partnership with SHUT. Collaborations are a great way to multiply exposure to the type of audience you want coming into your restaurant.