Most Popular Restaurant Merchandise Ideas & Keys to Promoting Them
In addition to driving revenue, branded restaurant merchandise can generate buzz and foster brand affinity. Learn what popular items restaurants promote and sell online.
Restaurants are far more than transactional, brick-and-mortar eateries; they're full-blown brands with loyal followers.
Now more than ever, brands with loyal followers are using e-commerce to sell branded merchandise that plays into the brand's community. Restaurant brands have embraced their ability to capitalize on this, and are using their websites to sell apparel, cookbooks, glassware and more to their audience.
In addition to strong brand affinity — which is built over time with a combination of marketing, service and quality — the key to selling restaurant merch is coming up with great ideas for products. The right idea needs to be tailored to the restaurant and its audience, but should also have a proven track record of sales and demand.
To help restaurants get started, we have curated some of the most popular items sold through our restaurant merchandise store, along with some thoughts on how to promote them.
1. Branded T-Shirts & Sweatshirts
Why It Works: For restaurants with strong brand affinity, apparel such as t-shirts and sweatshirts are top sellers. They give diners who love and identify with restaurants a way to express that identity. Restaurants can market apparel by having employees wear products in the restaurant, sending free swag to influencers (in exchange for social media posts) and promoting their apparel during holiday season, as Two Birds Taphouse did last December.
2. Restaurant Cookbooks
Why It Works: If your restaurant has a well-known chef, their credibility can help sell cookbooks. If your restaurant is more brand-driven than chef-driven, you can still sell cookbooks — but it helps to give the collection a compelling "hook,” rather than making it a broad set of recipes. Brigsten's in New Orleans does both: In addition to citing their well-known chef Frank Brigsten on the cover, they give the cookbook the "hook" of local summer recipes from the Bayou.
3. Sauces & Marinades
Why It Works: Williamson Bros. Bar-B-Q is a beloved barbecue eatery with locations throughout Metro Atlanta. It bottles and sells its entire line of sauces, which satisfied out-of-town guests can take home an authentic souvenir. Once their bottles are empty, they can easily replenish supplies by ordering more on the restaurant’s website, which is optimized for easy navigation and checkout.
4. Mugs & Glassware
Why It Works: Branded mugs and glassware give diners the satisfaction of repping their favorite local coffee shop, bar or restaurant from the comfort of home. The Two Guns x MIIR Camp Cup from Two Guns Espresso has advanced insulation technology, so diners don’t feel like they have to skimp on quality to support the business. Notably, Two Guns Espresso optimizes its web page to make this and other product details clear and digestible, an important optimization when selling high-quality merch.
5. Tote Bags
Why It Works: According to designer Rachel Comey, “there’s a trend in New York right now where people are wearing merch: carrying totes from local delis, hardware stores or their favorite steakhouse. But it’s not just a New York thing: As restaurants across the world become more like lifestyle brands, repping them becomes a lifestyle choice for diners. Tote bags in particular are cheap to produce and practical, making them great merch for restaurants with socially conscious customers. Altro Paradiso takes this one step further, donating all proceeds from its tote bag sales to ROAR in support of New York City’s independent restaurant industry and a path to a sustainable future.
6. Wine Keys and Bottle Openers
Why It Works: Wine and beer make great gifts, but including a wine key or bottle opener from someone’s favorite restaurant adds a memorable touch. Brooklyn restaurant Hart’s, for example, sells wine keys with its logo and a quirky yet simple message — ”ADD ANCHOVIES” — that alludes to an option on its famous lamb burger. The message makes the merchandise feel like it’s intended for “insiders,” which makes loyal diners proud to understand it and more likely to buy it.
7. Gifts for Pets
Why It Works: Dog owners are a tight-knit community with a shared passion for their four-legged friends, which is why Phoenicia Diner in upstate New York sells custom dog bandanas on its website. The LOT Dog Bandana is a reference to the restaurant’s picnic-style outdoor dining area where dogs are proudly welcomed. Dog-friendly restaurants would be remiss not to give dog owners a fashionable way to support the restaurant with merch.
8. Hats & Beanies
Why It Works: In the winter, much of the country sees temperatures near or below freezing. When this happens, people typically want to restock on winter wear such as beanies, which creates an opportunity for restaurants to sell them to a primed audience. Bogart’s Doughnut Co. in Minneapolis sells two colors of its fashionable stocking cap, which it promotes by noting the caps are made in-state — a prominent selling point for guests who want to support local businesses. When restaurants partner with neighboring businesses to produce merch, guests can support two local vendors at once.
9. Stickers, Flags & Banners
Why It Works: Generations of South Florida locals have flocked to Flanigan’s since 1959 to enjoy one of its 20 locations’ island vibes, exceptional food and warm hospitality. The Flanigan’s Flag is a perfect piece of merchandise for these customers, who tend to enjoy “good time” outdoor activities like boating and tailgating, where flags are often flown. Members of the aptly named “Flan Club” — Flanigan’s loyalty program — even dedicated an Instagram account to the flag’s travels. This is a case study in how to build a restaurant brand with deep connections to its audience, then tailor merchandise specifically to that audience.
10. Restaurant Equipment
Why It Works: Restaurant equipment isn’t technically “merchandise,” but restaurants commonly sell it online. The endorsement of a professional food & beverage establishment lends credibility to customers. For example, Saxbys sells “Toddy Cold Brew Systems” on its website, explaining that they can be used to replicate the restaurant’s cold brew process. Knowing that a premium coffee retailer trusts the merchandise to make great coffee compels people to convert rather than doing more research.
General Best Practices for Marketing Restaurant Merchandise
The previous section covered specific merchandise examples and keys to promoting them. However, there are also several general best practices that apply to marketing all types of restaurant merchandise.
1. Set up an online store
Until recently, restaurants rarely sold merchandise outside the restaurant. But with modern technology, it’s easy for restaurants to set up and optimize an online merchandise store. Digital shopping was growing rapidly before the pandemic, but according to IBM’s U.S. Retail Index, the pandemic has accelerated the shift by roughly five years. Restaurants may not think of themselves as “retailers,” but when they’re selling branded merchandise, that’s what they are — and that means they need to think digital.
2. Promote new merch “drops” on email and across social media
Email and social media are perfect channels to highlight new offerings when they debut. To build proper fanfare, restaurants should include compelling imagery and relevant messaging that aligns with the tone of the merchandise. For example, a dive bar selling beer openers with their catchphrase will likely have cheekier, less elevated marketing materials than a fine dining restaurant selling its famous chef’s new cookbook. Also make sure to tag URL links with UTMs so you can attribute clicks and sales to each piece of content, then use that data to optimize future promotions.
3. Leverage owned data to segment & market to your fanbase
Restaurants are capturing a larger share of digital diner interactions than they used to, chipping away at the dominance of third-party marketplaces. As they do this, they are building larger owned customer databases, which allows them to market products like merchandise more effectively. For example, restaurants can send a first email announcing new merchandise to all customers, then follow up with a weekly reminder that only goes to diners who ordered 4+ times this year. This way, they can continue to market merchandise to frequent diners (the audience most likely to purchase it), while not annoying occasional diners with multiple emails about products they don't want.