In 1968, concert promoter Bill Graham started Winterland Productions, which is often credited as the first concert T-shirt manufacturing company. It produced concert T-shirts for musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, cementing the apparel as a cultural phenomenon. For the buyers and fans, these tees allowed them to openly pledge allegiance to their favourite bands.
More than 50 years on, bars, as well as chefs and their restaurants, are now the new rock stars, attracting a cult status just like the bands do. And what better way to declare your allegiance than with the T-shirt?
Restaurants have been selling merchandise or merch for as long as such establishments have been cool. But these aren’t your Hard Rock Cafe tees emblazoned with a print dedicated to the country of purchase. Restaurant merch now is a more complex mix of community spirit, bragging rights and cool cred.
Take, for example, St John in London, where owner-founder Fergus Henderson, based on his philosophy of nose to tail eating, is famous for using offal, neglected cuts of meat and just about every other delicious part of the pig in exhilarating dishes marrying high sophistication with peasant roughness.
He has worked with everyone from Scottish artist Douglas Gordon to Comme des Garcons to put the restaurant’s signature logo of a pig (reproduced on the cover of his recipe book Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking) on apparel and accessories.
However, while bands usually draw a significant portion of their income from merchandise, restaurants make little, if any. Instead, the merch is a way to engage with customers beyond the food and drinks.
“We started doing merch around 2016, after the book Artichoke: Stories and Recipes from Singapore’s Most Rebellious Kitchen was launched. The first-ever cap we made cost $42 to produce and we sold it for $45, so we certainly didn’t make any money from that. It’s also one of the few pieces of merch that we still have,” says Bjorn Shen, chef-owner of Artichoke restaurant.
Since then, Artichoke has worked with a few friends on its boldly designed, usually humorous merch such as a T-shirt with a wolfman declaring: “Why have abs when you have kebabs” from designer Claudius Keng and a Kickapoo Joy Juice-inspired graphic created by illustrator Eric Foenander for Artichoke’s jamboree party.
In fact, most F&B merchandise is born from a sense of community. Shen has tops with prints of various guest chef collaborations done at gourmet sandwich joint Park Bench Deli and counts a T-shirt by Gubak Kia, which adds a modern spin to classic dishes from the famous Empress Place Beef Kway Teow, among his favourites.
In fact, the sense of community is so strong that such merch sometimes crosses borders. Ian Lim of natural wine bar RVLT says: “We get very excited when we see our merchandise move around overseas. I’ve had winemakers from overseas send me pictures of people with our merch. Because [natural wine] is such a small scene, you’re more inclined to say hi if you meet someone on the street wearing related merch. It’s like running into someone wearing the T-shirt of your favourite, super obscure punk band.”
Lyla Lin, director of Loop PR and RVLT regular, recalls an occasion when she was dining at Barabba in Copenhagen. “The chef saw my friends and I wearing RVLT T-shirts and told us how he had many fond memories of partying at the bar after the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2019 in Singapore. Because of this connection, we got extra food and wine – and we sent him some merch once we go back.”
Understandably, purchasing merch from your favourite places is a great way to support bars and restaurants that are unable to operate or are struggling right now. At the time of writing, Artichoke, for instance, was printing a T-shirt exhorting people to “Stay home FFS (For F**k’s Sake)”.
“If I see people wearing Artichoke merch on the street, I’d fist-bump them. Usually, they’re other industry people, ex-staffers who are proud to have worked here or regulars who come to our events. It’s like wearing a band T-shirt to a concert,” says Shen.
This article first appeared in The Peak.
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