Restaurant merch used to mean a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt. But now, many roasteries, bakeries, breweries and restaurants are offering covetable, design-savvy merchandise.
At a time when the hospitality industry is in tatters because of the pandemic – UK restaurants and casual dining firms recorded almost 30,000 job losses in 2020 and seven in 10 restaurants fear they will have to close as a result of the pandemic – many establishments around the country, including Crazy Pedros, a pizza parlour and tequila bar with branches in Manchester and Liverpool, the Taiwanese cult restaurant Bao, Mangal 2 and Top Cuvée, have seen a rise in merchandise sales. “The T-shirts have been absolutely flying out,” says Max Halley of Max’s Sandwich Shop. Merchandise is a way for customers to support their favourite spots. For many businesses, ithas been a genuine help. “T-shirt sales have topped up pay packets, paid rent and utility bills … money we owed suppliers and all that sort of stuff. They have kept our heads above water,” says Halley. As Brodie Meah, co-owner of north London’s Top Cuvée restaurant and wine shop, points out, it helps that “There’s a better margin on selling T-shirts than a plate of cooked food”.
If it seems strange that people want to advertise where they get their pizza from, remember we are living in an age of merch – you need only look to the amount of inauguration merch for evidence. We are also living in a time when brands are expected to present a three-dimensional face to the world. Look to London’s Mangal 2 – known for its witty and politicised Twitter feed (they recently asked “Is 2021 the year Mangal 2 finally gets to fight Saltbae?”, the Turkish chef whose meat seasoning technique became a well-known meme). No wonder its customers don’t just want a kebab. Ditto a brand such as Somerset-based Girls Who Grind Coffee. They might not have a physical cafe but their T-shirts, featuring slogans such as “Girls & Coffee & Fuck the Patriarchy”, savvily sell themselves beyond the beans.
Wearing a restaurant T-shirt is akin to wearing a band tee to signal your identity. Halley makes sense of this move away from the Ramones to ham hock and piccalilli subs: “Who are the cool bands these days anyway? You don’t see many people walking about in a One Direction T-shirt do you?”
Ryan Doyle, of Manchester-based DR.ME, the designers of Top Cuvée’s T-shirts says: “In a way, restaurants have replaced musicians and DJs for the time being. So you want to make something that feels special, more than just a logo on a white tee.”
As Halley puts it: “It’s just wonderful because it has genuinely helped us get through this awful shitfest.” Plus, speaking about one of his designs that reads simply: “Fuck sourdough”: “I can use them to vent my feelings about how awful – for sandwiches – bloody sourdough is! Which is nice.”