Optimizing Your Restaurant Merch Game

Merch might a somewhat newer term in a restaurant owner's lexicon, but having a focused merchandising effort can connect a person to a brand as well as  be a great way to build awareness and put buts in seats. While someone might want to express their admiration by wearing or displaying brand merch, it's important for those brands to create products that will not simply collect dust in a corner.  

So, how can restaurants use merchandise as an effective marketing tool to tap into local brand ambassadors and build awareness?

To learn more about best practices for creating effective merchandise, Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine connected with Greg Kerr, Owner of Alchemy Merch, which has made more than four million custom products for artists, brands, and creatives in all fields. He has guided wineries, breweries, food brands and restaurants, artists and corporate clients through the process of creating quality custom merchandise. 

Art and creativity are in Kerr’s blood.  A musician who performs in a heavy hardcore band, he first started creating merchandise while touring with his punk rock band in the early 2000s. The belt buckles he made for the band caught the attention of other musicians and soon turned into Kerr's first foray into custom merchandise.  Prior to expanding his business and evolving it into Alchemy, he  founded Pin Game Strong, making custom enamel pins for artists and corporate clients.  

What are some examples of best practices for choosing apparel that matches your brand and engages with guests?

One of the most important things to choose upfront is whether you want promotional products, or merchandise for your business.  Promotional products are meant as giveaways, whereas merchandise is intended to be sold to represent your brand.  If you are choosing to create unique merchandise for your brand, it is important to choose higher quality items that can be fully customized.  Promotional products take an existing item, such as a water bottle and just place your logo onto it within set sizes.  Fully custom merchandise allows you the control to design it and print it exactly how you envision and offers a level of customization that makes it unique to your brand.

 The most crucial element is making something people want to have. 

Without naming anyone specific, what are broad examples of apparel match ups that were not executed in the right way? 

Most of the time I see items in a restaurant for sale, they are generally either promotional product quality or if it’s a t-shirt, it’s been printed on low quality shirts.  Another potential way of creating lackluster products is to simply slap your logo onto an item.  For some brands, this can work, but not a lot of people want to wear the name of a restaurant as a regular staple in their wardrobe, unless it has something else to the design to make it interesting. Some examples are a t-shirt with a funny or edgy saying like “drink beer, pet dogs” or “legalize marinara”. Logo items do seem to work pretty well for breweries, where customers identify and want to showcase their loyalty. 

How crucial is brand authenticity when selecting appropriate merch?

In the same way that it’s important to use your brand guides and art to layout the feel of your location, it’s important to carry those elements into your merchandise.  Keeping colors consistent, messaging and designs fitting into your brand’s visual identity will help create a more cohesive and stronger brand delivery.  

How important has apparel and other merchandise become to brands?

If you can create merchandise that people want to wear, or carry, the amount of impressions and long term value you will get from the item is tenfold what a poorly thought out or cheap product will deliver for you.  It’s worth spending a little more to create something people would want to represent than it is to spend money on items that end up in a drawer or never used.

If the product can help start a conversation, it’s a success.  

In what ways can merchandise be an effective marketing tool for brands?

A t-shirt or tote bag can get a massive amount of visual impressions for you.  A tote bag, on average, gets over 3000 views.  If you make an interesting tote that someone wants to carry, they will use it and your brand will be seen.  Enamel pins or keychains can be worn and seen a lot.  If someone is using your keychain, it goes everywhere they go.  A pin can be placed on a hat, bag, jacket, etc.  

The most crucial element is making something people want to have.  No one needs another cheap shirt that doesn’t feel comfortable to wear.  It just ends up in the trash or being donated and your marketing dollars won’t get enough value from the spend.

What are some examples of creative uses of merch to promote a company?

There are so many good items to make if they are designed well.  We’ve seen a lot of breweries use challenge coins or pins as a way to promote a loyalty club that may give discounts on new brews or to regulars.  Restaurants with multiple locations that focus on an item specific to the area they are opening in or use pins showcasing the brand’s core values for the employees to wear as flair.  We’ve made pins for bakeries of some of their most popular specialties.  Companies that use witty designs for shirts where the branding is secondary, but the message is prominent can be a great way to get someone wanting to wear it.  

Ultimately the restaurants, breweries, coffee shops and bakeries that we see coming back, restocking, and making a lot of new items have put time into going beyond promotional and into custom products that stand out.  They have a clear throughline of messaging and brand identity and do unique designs beyond the logo.  If the product can help start a conversation, it’s a success.