Some food brands are so beloved that customers are willing to pay for a branded T-shirt, coffee mug or other swag to proclaim their brand allegiance. And it’s not just chains like Hard Rock Cafe or In-N-Out Burger that attract that kind of loyalty.
Smaller, but still beloved, restaurants, breweries, coffee shops and others have used merchandising to create an additional revenue stream and create marketing buzz. But how do you know if your brand is popular enough to support this? And how do you get started?
Restaurant Insider talked to three restaurant owners across the country to get the skinny on their merchandising programs.
Kaladi Brothers Coffee in Alaska
Kaladi Brothers’ offices have a mini-museum showcasing its branded mugs dating back to the 1980s, but director of marketing Seth Stetson says its branded apparel is a more recent endeavor for the coffee brand. “It’s grown a lot since the Red Goat [the Kaladi Brothers’ logo] has become iconic,” he says. “People really like to see that goat on lots of different items.”
Each of Kaladi Brothers’ 15 cafes carries some merchandise, and the website also sells roughly the equivalent of one cafe location. “[Merchandise in each cafe is] curated because of the space available for retail,” Stetson says. “It varies so vastly. Some have lots of space, others have only space for certain items. We let the managers decide what they want to bring into their cafes.”
Among Kaladi Brothers’ most popular branded items is its Xtratuf koozie emblazoned with its logo. (Xtratuf is a brand of waterproof fishermen boots that are popular in Alaska.) “Items like this really stand out because they have such a connection to Alaska, both from the Kaladi side and the Xtratuf side,” Stetson says, noting that, at the same time, products like pink T-shirts and Big Gulp-sized drink vessels didn’t sell as well.
“We’re just giving people a way to rep the brands they love and the coffee they love.” -Seth Stetson
Instead of reordering the same items over and over, Stetson brings in new merchandise on a limited-edition basis. “Customers know ‘If I see it, I have to get it now,’” he says. “That helps drive demand.”
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To succeed at merchandising, Stetson says a strong, recognizable brand is essential. “Make sure that your business itself is offering and fulfilling a brand mission that contains some sort of customer connection and a vision for being a cool fun brand,” he says. “We’re just giving people a way to rep the brands they love and the coffee they love.”
Turkey and the Wolf in Louisiana
When Mason Hereford, owner of New Orleans sandwich shop Turkey and the Wolf, discussed logos with graphic designer Eli Silverman, Hereford envisioned a logo that would look cool printed on a patch. The shop opened in August 2016, and Hereford, a lifelong hat-wearer, made trucker hats using blank hats and iron-on patches of the logo. “That turned out to be a really cheap option for creating merchandise,” he says. Employees still make iron-on trucker hats, and the low material cost allows them to retail for $12. Since opening, Turkey and the Wolf has sold 1,490 hats.
Turkey and the Wolf has since branched out into iron-on tote bags and T-shirts, the latter printed by a local screen printer who also makes shirts for local metal bands. Hereford uses a rotating cast of local artist friends to design T-shirts for Turkey and the Wolf. “Very rarely will you see the same t-shirt come out twice,” he says. He’s considering adding socks, too.
Currently, Turkey and the Wolf only sells merchandise at its brick-and-mortar location, but Hereford says he gets frequent requests to sell online. “You end up seeing the stuff all over town,” he says. “If somebody’s wearing a T-shirt they bought, it’s a form of advertising.”
Dish Society in Texas
While many businesses sell merchandise as another revenue source, Dish Society does it for brand awareness and community outreach. The restaurant does have branded mugs and pint glasses, but the big draw is its “Made in Texas” T-shirts. The front of the shirts carry the same design as the “Made in Texas” mural at each of its three locations (two in Houston and one in Katy, Texas), while the back features a Dish Society logo.
Each quarter, proceeds from the “Made in Texas” shirts benefit a charity, such as the Urban Harvest Farmers Market or the Houston Food Bank, aligning with Dish Society’s focus on food and sustainability. “Aligning with a cause helps us sell more,” says Aaron Lyons, Dish Society’s founder and CEO. “They’re driving [foot] traffic to our stores, and most people order food while they’re here buying a shirt.” Dish Society doesn’t officially sell the shirts online, but when someone emails asking to buy one, they’ll mail it for an extra $5.
Lyons credits Houston and Texan pride for the shirts’ popularity. Locals buy them, as do native Texans visiting from other parts of the county. “People dig the ‘Made in Texas’ part,” he says. “We did Hurricane Harvey shirts, and those went over really well too.”
In the past, Lyons ordered the T-shirts himself and sometimes struggled to keep up with demand. “Every other week, ‘Hey, we’re out of shirts,’” he says. “It’s a great problem to have. Now we have a bunch in inventory so we always have some.” As of a few months ago, Dish Society hired a marketing professional, who’s job is in part to oversee T-shirt sales. “Now that someone else is managing it, it’s a much better process,” Lyons adds. “We don’t do it for the money, we do it for the brand building.”