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How Sanrio Turned Hello Kitty Into a Food Superstar

From food trucks to wine, the brand’s most famous character is everywhere

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Drinks from the Hello Kitty Cafe
Hello Kitty Cafe/Facebook

For anyone who’s ever found themselves getting drunk and doing karaoke to let off some steam after a long week, Aggretsuko understands. She may be a cartoon red panda created by Sanrio (the Japanese company that brought us Hello Kitty), but she too has an office job and a boss she hates — so she unwinds by singing along to heavy metal and drinking a lot of beer, as chronicled in her YouTube videos.

So it’s appropriate that tired and tipsy patrons at Energy Bistro & Karaoke in Hacienda Heights, California, will find that Aggretsuko is there for them, in the form of a branded room and snack: For $19, visitors can order an Aggretsuko Mini Rage Burger, which comes on a brioche bun and is topped with shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles, melted American cheese, thousand island, and ketchup.

Sanrio is a massive, international business, worth an estimated $2.4 billion in 2015, according to Forbes. But a surprising number of those dollars come from collaborations with smaller, sometimes-food-focused businesses, like Energy Bistro and the family-run Tanaka Farms in nearby Irvine.

Tanaka Farms, founded in 1940 when Teruo Tanaka emigrated to the U.S. from Japan, began its partnership with Sanrio last fall: Its pumpkin patches featured plywood stands with Hello Kitty and other characters. In the winter, that switched over to a Santa tour and a Sanrio village; this spring, visitors can pick strawberries in Tanaka’s fields and then pose for a selfie with a statue of the lady Kitty herself.

Sanrio-themed food from Energy Bistro & Karaoke in Hacienda Heights, California

“We were always hesitant to do a collaboration like this because it makes us look not [like a] family farm,” says third-generation farmer-owner Kenny Tanaka. But Sanrio’s nostalgia factor — combined with its willingness to be flexible about the amount of on-site branding — sealed the deal, and thus far, the partnership has been wildly successful. The farm had to pre-sell parking passes for its weekend Harvest Festivals to prevent having to turn anyone away. “A lot of people came for the Sanrio [events] that had never heard of us, so that’s kind of what we were hoping for,” Tanaka says.

Collaborations like these are dreamed up by Sanrio’s licensing department, which was established in 1999 in order to diversify and expand its business. A licensing agreement allows a partner company to use a brand’s intellectual property (logos, slogans, and in Sanrio’s case, characters) on its products. One of Sanrio’s first major partnerships was food-adjacent: that same year, a set of small plush dolls celebrating Hello Kitty’s romance with fellow Sanrio character Dear Daniel were made available in McDonald’s Happy Meals.

Since then, the brand has worked with everyone from General Mills (Hello Kitty Strawberry Surprise cookie mix) to Kikkoman (a Hello Kitty soy sauce dispenser). These days, 50,000 Sanrio-branded items are available in over 70 countries.

Licensing one’s brand name can be a risky business — but it can have significant payoffs if it works out. Licensing is how Jamie Oliver ended up with a line of ready-made meals, and it’s also responsible for Rachael Ray knife sets. Licensing can dilute a brand, especially if the products prove flimsy or faulty, or too varied and random. But it can also expand the brand’s reach significantly without requiring the brand to put resources into iterating, or establishing physical production capabilities. Rachael Ray doesn’t have to buy a factory or start sourcing steel; she has just to sign the rights to her name over to people who know how to do these things.

David Marchi, Sanrio’s VP of brand management and marketing, remembers how the late-’90s advent of Sanrio’s licensing department helped it change its public perception from girly and cutesy to playful and even chic. “Tyra Banks had shown up to an awards event with a beaded Hello Kitty purse,” he says. “It was a big deal — it made it into InStyle. That was the beginning of… the phenomenon of not only celebrity culture and celebrities getting involved with brand, but the onset of: This brand is not just for little kids.”

Instead of adhering to a strict set of brand guidelines that establish a singular vision of Hello Kitty — meant to appeal to a singular vision of its customer — Sanrio works with a variety of companies to make its stable of characters relevant to diverse demographics.

Drinks and pastries at the Hello Kitty Cafe
Kristie Hang/Eater LA

Indeed, there are products that speak to almost everyone. To a 7-year-old, Hello Kitty might mean plushes and keychains; to a teenager, a retro-cool t-shirt or playing Hello Kitty Pac-Man on her phone; for adults, there are collector’s edition Barbie dolls and bottles of Hello Kitty wine. Sanrio reported $4.4 billion in retail sales of licensed merchandise in 2016 alone.

Sanrio actively started courting an adult audience in 2009, with the celebration of Hello Kitty’s 35th anniversary (since the character is eternally 9 years old, she doesn’t do “birthdays”). The fete included a partnership with Royal/T Cafe in LA’s Culver City, which featured Hello Kitty art and menus, as well as a gift shop and a brand retrospective. It was so successful that it spawned more restaurant partnerships: Now, diners can order chocolate opera cake at the Santa Ana Westfield Mall’s Hello Kitty Cafe, or eat dishes inspired by the lazy egg character Gudetama at Southern California chain Curry House. Roving Hello Kitty food trucks have visited various cities including Las Vegas and Austin.

These experiences allow more casual fans to engage with the brand. A woman who doesn’t necessarily want to stock her apartment with Sanrio collectibles can still enjoy lunch with a friend at a Hello Kitty café or food truck; a guy who isn’t particularly interested in Sanrio might nonetheless be tempted by the limited-edition black beanie that comes with the Curry House meals. Parents can bring their children to Tanaka’s strawberry patch to introduce them to My Melody, and also to where carrots come from. (And if that child happens to catch sight of the gift shop on their way out, well, all the better.)

Experiences are also the best way to reach the millennial customer, who resides in a demographic sweet spot: At somewhere between 25 and 35, she likely has some disposable income — and soon enough, she might have children of her own to introduce to the brand. A recent study conducted by Eventbrite found that for millennials, “living a meaningful, happy life is about creating, sharing and capturing memories earned through experiences,” which is to say, they would rather spend their paychecks on going to a concert than on an artist’s limited-edition box set.

A Hello Kitty Cafe pop-up in Irvine, California
Hello Kitty Cafe/Facebook

And what is an experience if it’s not captured? According to one marketing research firm, 59 percent of millennials use Instagram as of 2017, netting brands who woo them with a double gain. First, the company get paid for the experience itself; then there’s the free promotion when the participant geotags a photo or adds a branded hashtag to their picture.

For the customer, the Sanrio experience helps boost what marketing professor John Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, calls “social currency.” By making mundane choices visible on social media, users are publicizing them as conscious aesthetic and moral decisions, promoting those decisions as part of a coherent personal brand. As Eater’s Vince Dixon explained, users are moved to share experiences when they “want or hope the idea they’re sharing will ultimately reflect favorably on themselves or their tastes.”

So when a thirty-something ‘grams herself quaffing Hello Kitty rosé after a hard day at the office, she’s projecting something about her own taste: That she’s fun, that she has an appreciation for, in a turn on Sanrio’s catchphrase, “small” things that provide “big smiles.”

Sanrio’s strong visual signature couldn’t be a better fit for the ultra-documented smartphone age, and it’s reinforced that by matching its cute characters with stuff people like to photograph anyway, like restaurant meals and trips to farms for quaint rituals like pumpkin picking. There are some 8.5 million posts tagged #HelloKitty currently on Instagram, many of which feature branded pastries and lattes in pink-and-white mugs, as well as shots taken in Hello Kitty cafes.

A Gudetama dish at Curry House in Cypress, California
Curry House/Facebook

As flexible as the Hello Kitty brand is, a cartoon kitty cat won’t appeal to everyone, so Sanrio has also started creating characters that speak more directly to an adult market. Not surprisingly, given that the average millennial eats out five times a week, many are actual foodstuffs. In 2013, the company introduced Gudetama, an egg who seems to suffer from depression. Sanrio, on its website, describes him as merely lacking “spunk.” Gudetama’s designer told the New York Times that she dreamt him up while eating breakfast one day. “[Eggs are] relegated to this fate of being eaten and seemed to me to despair in this,” she said.

Gudetama was followed by Kirimi-chan, a salmon filet with arms and legs and none of Gudetama’s existential despair about her mealtime destiny: “Be sure to grill me up nicely!” reads her bio on Sanrio’s website. Then, in 2016, Sanrio moved from focusing on characters who are foods to a character who consumes them: Aggretsuko, that hard-drinking, karaoke-loving red panda.

Gudetama, Kirim-chan and Aggretsuko are distinctly of the meme era: Instead of the aspirational kawaii of Hello Kitty or Little Twin Stars, they’re relatable. Aggretsuko doesn’t just get drunk, she also suffers from hangovers.

So it’s smart for Sanrio to make food a fixture within its brand in addition to collaborating with food companies. Not only does Aggretsuko like the same things we like — beer! — she also likes to define herself the way we like to define ourselves. She speaks our language. She is one of us; she is omg, same.

Hello Kitty Wine / Sanrio

There’s a lot of pressure on a brand that’s managed to stay hot for 40 years: How can it remain familiar enough that fans will continue to love it, while also offering them fresh products and experiences that keep them coming out (and opening their wallets) time and time again?

Licensing is an elegant answer. Hello Kitty’s aesthetic can retain its vintage charm while also feeling fresh as it gets worked into video games, fashion, makeup lines, and onto restaurant menus. The success of the strategy can perhaps best be seen in one of its most unlikely partnerships, with an Italian winery called Torti.

Torti has been making Hello Kitty-branded wines since 2007, but until 2016, those wines were only available in Europe and Asia. Last fall, they made their American debut alongside a tasting menu at a Santa Ana, California restaurant called Antonello Ristorante. Now you can buy bottles online and in stores.

“This is the beauty and complexity of Hello Kitty,” Marchi says. “To someone who’s not necessarily as initiated into the world of Hello Kitty you might think, ‘Oh, you’d never do that, because she’s for little girls.’ But there’s a Hello Kitty for a seven-year-old, there’s a Hello Kitty for a 14-year-old, [and] for a 21-plus year old who can enjoy Hello Kitty as an adult — as a responsible adult — in an adult way.”

Zan Romanoff is a full-time freelance writer; she lives and works in Los Angeles.