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Merch Madness

Branded restaurant merchandise has become a shorthand for selfhood. How did we get here?

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A play on the evolution of humans: A crawling ape becomes a walking ape who becomes a man holding a New Yorker tote bag who becomes a man covered head to toe in restaurant merchandise. Carolyn Figel

At some point during the past few years, I looked around to find my apartment — nay, my body — had become a temple to everywhere I’ve ever eaten. Mugs and hats from local grocers, hoodies from roadside diners, T-shirts and totes from damn near everywhere else. I’ve had to install more hooks in my kitchen mug rack. I’m thinking of buying a second dresser. I need a 12-step for tote bags. What, exactly, is happening?

Some combination of aesthetic evolution, brand loyalty, and the need to communicate one’s identity in the time it takes to view an Instagram story has curdled into a fashion trend uniquely suited to our late-capitalist times. What started with indie restaurants and Zizmorcore has spread to chains like Costco and Publix. Los Angeles pastrami spot Langer’s now hawks a shirt with its name in Dodgers font. There’s a Dimes pepper mill and candle, a glasses cord from Montreal winery Elena, In-N-Out sneakers, not one but two restaurant Croc charms, a Kitty’s Hudson chip clip, a wine key that reads “The Fly is a chicken bar.” What’s next, a Pink’s Hot Dogs pince-nez?

And there are collabs, too: totes from Baggu x Mr. Jiu’s, Baggu x Russ & Daughters, and Russ & Daughters x Ecco; shoes from Rubirosa x Fila, a Carlyle hotel x D.S. & Durga perfume; a Camphor x Menu varsity jacket. This very publication x Takenaka chopsticks. LA has a streetwear and food festival. I could go on.

Restaurant merch is now so cool, resident cool girl Alison Roman is selling merch for a restaurant that doesn’t exist. I myself have purchased the infamous Daddy’s Little Meatball shirt and, for some reason, a hat that says “Pizza Shirt” from a Philly pizzeria I’ve never been to. We can’t even see the shark anymore.

How did we get here? You could say it started with the tote. I was probably standing on a subway platform when I first saw it, the bag it seemed every fifth New Yorker was required to have — that is, the New Yorker tote. The magazine introduced it as a subscription perk in 2014 and it caught like fire, our parched identities desperate for this elegant way to show the world how well-read we were (or at least how many unread magazines lived on our coffee table).

I noticed the pens soon after. You know the pen — tapered at the ends, like an elongated dirigible, with a thin metal ring around the waist and a restaurant logo on its side. How it became The Pen is a problem for another article, but along with the tote, it was symptomatic of a major culture reset. Practically overnight, luggage brands and mattress companies became indistinguishable from the likes of Glossier and Everlane, and eateries learned to surf this aesthetic wave — and to sell it.

“When we opened in 2017, it was clear that restaurants were having some fun and success selling branded merchandise,” says Chad Conley, owner of Portland, Maine, bagel shop Rose Foods. He worked with the Atlanta graphic design studio Family Brothers to create his store’s whole font/logo situation, and calls them “the real stars.” In fact, they’re the reason he made merch: “I felt so good about the look of the brand, I wanted to make sure we featured it,” he says. And it paid off. Heck, I drove to Maine on the strength of his shop’s branding. I’ve only been there once, yet here I am drinking out of the Rose Foods muted pink mug as I write.

This penchant for nostalgia, this “pics or it didn’t happen” mentality, is another piece of the merch-addiction pie. Merch is a very effective “You are here,” a dropped pin on the mall map of your life. It’s I went to [insert trendy eatery] and all I got was a very cool way to show the world that I did. (And the “cool” part matters — I wouldn’t be building a mug rack to display all 20+ of mine if they didn’t each look like the ceramic equivalent of an Eames chair.)

COVID knocked the trend into hyperdrive, throwing even the most beloved restaurants into financial free fall. Unable to sell consumables, they sold wearables — and we bought them all. This helped a little, but not a lot. When I spoke to Joe Beddia of Pizzeria Beddia (makers of the “Pizza Shirt” hat), he told me his food brings in way better margins than his merch. Conley said the same, calling merch “mostly a break-even situation.” (If this moment is anyone’s cash cow, the heifer is more likely parked in the yard of Hanes, Gildan, and Comfort Colors; of tote wholesalers and graphic designers; of whoever sells those damn pens.)

So why is merch still everywhere? Because of us. For whatever reason, we rep the things we love. Even fans of anti-consumerist punk band Fugazi (who famously did not sell merch) resorted to bootlegging unlicensed “This is not a Fugazi t-shirt” shirts, a story that shores up our complicity — because what’s newsworthy isn’t how much restaurants are selling, but how much we’re buying. The bait has always been there; it’s taking it that’s on the rise. And though good design is one piece of that puzzle, it’s not the whole picture.

The speed at which we now perceive each other online has necessitated certain shorthands for selfhood. Your astrological sign can be one such semaphore; knowing about Musso & Frank, another. Now more than ever, we carve out our identities in things that can be posted, hearted, reposted. Is it any wonder, then, that my body has become a billboard, a mere extension of my feed? That we’re dumping the heavy yoke of communicating who we are onto restaurant totes, onto McDonald’s ready-to-wear? And of course it isn’t just restaurants, but museums, indie radio, the National Park Service, those magazine totes — anything capable of telegraphing personal taste, good humor, and insider awareness in the space of a reel or tweet. Promotional products have become the ultimate IYKYK.

Humans have been expressing themselves through fashion since the first person iterated on the loin cloth, but our willingness to let our clothes speak for us has ballooned in the very online culture we occupy today — a culture in which plain became normcore, not drinking became the nonalcoholic beverage juggernaut, and merch abstinence became a brand in itself (see not only Fugazi, but Muji, whose name translates to “no brand”). Nothing is metabolized through our digital society’s many stomachs into something — something you can post or buy, something you want — no matter how nothing it once was or wanted to be. We meme-ify everything, turning simple cookies into The Cookie, simple T-shirts into trends. This, from a generation who grew up on Fight Club’s Tyler Derden telling us “You are not your fucking khakis.” Where is our countercultural, anti-capitalist backbone? Didn’t we all vote for Bernie?

It’d be great to say a little brand loyalty never hurt anyone, except that... it kind of has. Brand loyalty is just a hop-skip from the corporations-are-people rhetoric that disenfranchises the American public whenever bottom lines demand it. Most of the companies repped on my mug rack are too small to influence national politics, but still — it’s a slippery slope, loving things that want our money. David Foster Wallace wrote that “an ad that pretends to be art is — at absolute best — like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you.” For us, brand loyalty may just be about love. But for the brand it’s always going to be about something else.

That “something else” is sometimes just jokes, though. Philly brunch spot Middle Child puts bad customer reviews on totes; Beddia said he put “Pizza Shirt” on a hat because he thought “Pizza Shit” would be off-putting. The postmodern tone of this weary commentary makes me think the merch moment could be circling the drain, and maybe that’s okay. It’s not a perfect system for communicating our personalities. Liking the same coffee shop doesn’t tell me whether someone’s nice to their friends.

Still, we have to get dressed every day. And I’m currently having a much better time getting dressed than I used to — it’s a heck of a lot easier to exude cool with a hoodless crewneck from Zabar’s than with an ill-fitting Reformation dress. And if every option is laden with meaning anyways, why not rep the places we like? In this way, I think it’s probably okay to be a little bit your fucking khakis — to be what you wear, what you eat. Restaurants are places where you literally become the things you buy; you consume them. They become part of your cells. I don’t personally want to become Mara Hoffman or Acne Studios, but I wouldn’t mind being that big green salad at Via Carota — both physically, and in numinous ways that involve the magic that can take place in a kitchen, the look on my friend’s face across the table, the feeling of ceremony.

We can be forgiven, I think, for a skosh of brand loyalty when it comes to restaurants. They feed us, host our birthday parties and engagement announcements. Sometimes they become our actual friends. And COVID forced us to say goodbye to so many we thought would always be there. I think the PTSD of that is behind at least some of this drive to shell out for each and every drip drop. The T-shirts are a way of saying, “Hey, I like this place. But I can’t afford to eat here every night, so I hope you’ll eat here, too, so I can keep eating here forever.” And with a lot of these places, I really hope I can.

Linni Kral is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and educator with a background in food service. Her work covers eating from as many angles as she can dream up. Connect with her @linnikral or
Carolyn Figel is an illustrator and animator. She currently lives in LA with her dog, Fred.