Can T-Shirt Sales Save America’s Restaurants?

With Covid-19 forcing many American restaurants to close, the food and beverage industry is hoping sales of shirts and hats can provide a much needed revenue stream

With dining rooms around America closed due to coronavirus sales of T-shirts, hats and other logo-ed merchandise are a inancial band aid for restaurants like Sqirl in Los Angeles.

By Jacob Gallagher
Biography
@jacobwgallagher

IN NOVEMBER 2019, Luke Pierce and Annie Williams Pierce opened Law Bird, a cocktail bar in Columbus, Ohio. Until last month, the couple hadn’t felt the need to make shirts promoting their business. But on March 15, Law Bird was thrust into the unknown after Governor Mike DeWine ordered the state’s bars and restaurants to close indefinitely to squelch the spread of Covid-19. “We don’t have a big slush fund or anything like that that we can really offer our employees,” said Mr. Pierce. Suddenly, branded T-shirts seemed like a compelling idea. Swiftly, the couple ran off some Law Bird tops to sell online, including one printed with a contemplative Day-Glo gorilla’s face. A portion of the surprisingly decent proceeds are going toward the bar’s now laid-off staff. “They’ll be getting hopefully close to what their normal paycheck would have been,” said Mr. Pierce.

As coronavirus has walloped America’s hospitality industry, local governments nationwide have reluctantly forced eateries to close for the foreseeable future, spurring an economic crisis on both a macro and micro scale. Restaurants generates around 3% of the nation’s GDP and they employ more than 13 million Americans, many of whom are now wondering how they’ll buy groceries or make rent this month.

Well-known restaurateurs like Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio have led as-yet-unanswered calls for government assistance. Many restaurants, or their staffs independently, have started GoFundMe accounts, crowd-sourcing funds to help ride out this crisis. But dining establishments across America are also relying on sales of T-shirts, hats and other logo-ed merchandise as a financial band aid.

“Merch is one of our two only revenue sources right now,” said Marc-Aurele Buholzer, the owner of Vero, a pizzeria in Cleveland Heights, Ohio (the other being gift cards, which many small businesses are offering). Until last month, Vero had only sold merch in the restaurant but with that storefront out of operation, Mr. Buholzer quickly cobbled together a webshop to sell his decidedly hip T-shirts, which include a $20 child’s tee depicting a rather anxious, anthropomorphized slice of pizza atop a skateboard. He said he’s seeing “really good sales,” not only from locals, but shoppers around the country.

Eli Boyer, the co-owner of Voyager, a seafood restaurant in Ferndale, Mich., likewise has seen customers from both around the corner and as far away as Miami, Fla., buy up his restaurant’s branded apparel online. (The handsome $22 “Voyager Crew Fund” T-shirt features the timely sentiment, “A Smooth Sea Never Made a Skilled Sailor.”)
“We’re really impressed with the outpouring of support and interest,” said Mr. Boyer. A month ago, buying a branded hat was a way to broadcast “Hey, look where I’ve been.” In New York City

for example, few accessories carry more cultural clout than a hat from the downtown lit-pit The Odeon. Yet in the face of Covid-19, restaurant merch became a purchase with purpose. Helen Rosner, the “roving food correspondent” for the New Yorker, has posted merch from several hundred restaurants on Instagram, imploring her followers to “buy cool stuff to help indie restaurants in need of support.”

“Restaurants are the foundation of a community in most areas,” said Andrew Whitney, 33, who works for a beef processing company in Nashville. A few weeks ago, Mr. Whitney purchased a Tshirt from Turkey and the Wolf, a renowned sandwich shop in New Orleans, as a way to prop up the recently closed business. He looks forward to putting the days of self-isolation behind him, whenever that will be possible, and wearing the shirt in public. “The merch thing to me, it’s something that represents more than just injecting a little bit of cash flow….whether it’s a shirt, a sticker, or whatever it may be, it’s promoting that brand,” he said.

Mason Hereford, the owner of Turkey and the Wolf, noted that, since he closed the restaurant, his merch sales have raised $14,000 for his furloughed staff. The program, he said, has “made an impact in people’s lives, in our business, in our restaurant.”

The unfortunate reality is that merch can only carry an eatery so far. “We could sell 400 hats. It’s not going to pay rent,” said Nick Perkins, the co-owner of Hart’s, Cervo’s and the Fly, three New York City restaurants with a cult following among millennials. But his partner Leah Campbell quickly chimed in that “every little bit counts” and sales of Hart’s mugs and Cervo’s hats have, at a bare minimum, boosted staff morale in a dark time. “It’s extremely heartwarming to see,” said Mr. Perkins, who noted that people as far away as Australia have placed orders.

For Adrienne Lo, the co-founder of Fat Rice, a Macanese restaurant in Chicago, profits from hot sauce bottles or T-shirts (including the $40 Polvo model showing an octopus seemingly constructed from mosaic tiles) don’t come close to matching the typical revenues from her restaurant operation. Nevertheless, they help the business subsist as it temporarily shifts into selling boxes of groceries to the community. “People buying Fat Rice gear is a way to kind of continue what we’re doing within these relief boxes,” said Ms. Lo.

Jessica Koslow, a co-owner and owner, respectively, of the oft-Instagrammed Los Angeles eateries Onda and Sqirl, called its retail sales “like Christmas.” Sqirl’s branded jam is an already popular packaged good, giving Ms. Koslow a slight advantage. But sales of its loopy T-shirts, which look like they’ve been pilfered from a merch stand at Bonnaroo, have also been quite high. A limited-edition shirt that was tie-dyed by a staff member is generating particular interest, with proceeds going directly to the staff.

Ms. Koslow’s operation is surviving much better than most—she can still run Sqirl as a to-go venture, sustaining about 80% of its normal business—but T-shirt and jam sales “cannot make up for the loss in revenue.” Restaurants are built to sell food, not shirts, and until they can open their dining rooms again, retail sales can only stop the bleeding for so long.

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Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com