When guests come in to eat at your restaurant, why not let them shop, too? Making branded merchandise gives you another way to connect customers with your business and expand the reach of your business. We asked Ursula Viglietta, Creative Director at Brooklyn’s Momofuku Milk Bar, for tips on making great swag — read on!
Developing the merchandise program for Milk Bar has been one of the most fun and challenging things to take on. For a business where the main focus is food, creating and marketing merch takes you in a whole new direction, and the learning curve can be steep! Customer feedback is a driving force when we consider new items to develop. We’re always taking stock of what our customers are asking for that we don’t currently offer and considering what we can do to make those things a reality.
In a big way, merchandising is about connecting with your customers on a deeper level and turning regulars into fans not just of your food, but of your company’s culture and personality. For Milk Bar this has translated into creating a range of products, including branded aprons to wear as you whip up some cookies with our baking mixes; tote bags to stash all your goodies in; and even an adorable Milk Bar baby onesie (just because it was too cute not to). What we have learned through trial and error is that our customers are really drawn to products that bring them into the cultural fold of our brand and allow them to bring something of Milk Bar home with them.
Here are some tips for working merchandise into your own food or restaurant business:
Define your brand. The most important thing you can do before delving into the creation of merchandise is to have a conversation about who you are as a brand. What style and personality does your brand bring to the table? What defines your visual identity? What makes your company stand out? Creating these guidelines early in the process will help steer you in the right direction to develop products that have a strong and consistent visual identity that clearly speak the language of your company. You may already have someone creative on your team who can take the lead on this, but if not it’s absolutely worth seeking out an artist or designer who can work with you to develop your ideas and take them to the next level.
Check out what other businesses are doing. Take the time to look at what other companies are putting out there and think critically about what you see. What speaks to you as a consumer? What are you not seeing that you wish existed? Make a wish list based on what you find. Think about what products will resonate the most with the audience you already have. There are many options out there, but you really want to find what aligns with your brand and your customer base.
Find vendors and printers. Research printers and/or vendors to find the best fit for the products you want to make. This can be a time-intensive part of the process, but it’s worth it to find a company that you can partner with for the long haul. This research will also help you determine what kind of budget you need to make the initial investment of producing your items, as well as the price point you’ll need to set in order to make a profit.
The main things to consider when comparing vendors are the quality of the products they are able to produce for you, the cost of producing, and what kind of profit you are looking to make reselling those items. When we started off selling shirts we were working with a boutique printer and spending almost as much to produce them as we were then charging our customers. This left us with very little room in our budget to grow the program and expand our offerings. As our merchandise became more popular with customers, we had to regroup. It was important to us in searching for a new vendor that we find someone who could produce the same quality of shirt, but who could offer wholesale pricing that was built for resale. This was a grueling process (my office was papered with T-shirt samples), but absolutely worth it, as lowering our production costs opened the door for us to expand the line to include more designs and fun items, like aprons.
Experiment! Don’t commit to the first idea you have. We typically go through a few dozen versions of any idea before we settle on the direction that we want to go in. It’s also really important to get outside feedback on a prototype once you’re at the point where you think you can’t improve it further. Criticism at the development phase is an integral part of creating a strong product.
Now that 2015 is here, resolve to make this the best year yet for your restaurant business. Every day this month we’ll be featuring a new tip from restaurateurs, chefs, and other industry leaders to shape up your marketing, operations, hospitality, and more. Check back daily for expert advice and successful strategies to start your year off right, and see them all here.