This Duckfat truckers hat incorporates the Portland restaurant’s duck logo into the design. Photo by Kari Herer

Last year, on March 26, chef Christian Hayes announced “through bloodshot eyes and tears” that the final service at The Garrison, his restaurant in the historic Sparhawk Mill in Yarmouth, would be that weekend. That night, he stayed up until 3 a.m. designing T-shirts to sell on his restaurant’s website, hoping that any infusion of cash, however small, might help keep The Garrison from going under during the pandemic. One of the tees featured the word “resurgam,” which means “I shall rise again.”

By the time Hayes’ catering company started cranking out prepared meals and selling groceries to help pay the bills, he’d added a shirt featuring a cartoonish gentlemen happily sniffing some delicious aroma. The text on the shirt reads: Smells Like Quarantine Spirit.

“That seemed to catch on,” Hayes said. “It’s catchy, it’s cool, and people were kind of into it.”

Chef Christian Hayes designed this shirt last spring, when he was forced to temporarily close his Yarmouth restaurant because of the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Christian Hayes

The Quarantine Spirit tee is still a bestseller, and the design now comes on a sticker and tote bag as well. A year later, the Garrison online shop includes nearly 50 pieces of restaurant swag, all designed by Hayes and produced and shipped by a print-on-demand company that splits the profits with the chef. The extra income arrives occasionally and has not single-handedly saved Hayes’ business, but in the current circumstances “obviously every penny counts,” he said. “If you get $600 direct deposited from this company, that will trickle down to pretty much every aspect of trying to survive right now.”

As the pandemic has lingered, lots of Maine restaurants have either started selling merchandise with their logos, or beefed up their online stores with new products, in hope that the additional stream of cash can help them keep their heads above water. That stream is uneven, spiking over the holidays or whenever a photo gets posted on Instagram, but all the restaurateurs interviewed for this article say the same thing: Every little bit helps.

Sales of swag are also a tangible expression of diners’ love for favorite restaurants.

“I think there has been an uptick in merch as an alternative way to spend your money in your favorite places, especially for places in Portland,” said Sean Wilkinson, owner of Might & Main, a boutique branding and design agency in Portland that has designed logos and merchandise for many local restaurants. “If I can’t go to Blyth & Burrows because they’re not open (they are now), can I buy a hoodie that has their logo on it?”

Or how about a mermaid in a cocktail glass? Before the pandemic, a mermaid wearing nothing but two strategically-placed seashells adorned a Blyth & Burrows T-shirt. In 2019, according to owner Joshua Miranda, the shirts brought in less than $750. In the midst of the pandemic, Miranda redesigned the T-shirt: now the mermaid is wearing a mask. Over the past year,  it has brought in $5,000. The extra money was “not the saving grace, but it definitely helped,” Miranda said. “You could feel the love.”

When the pandemic started shutting down bars and restaurants, Blyth & Burrows gave its mermaid mascot a mask. Photo courtesy of Joshua Miranda

Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw in Portland have always sold merchandise, from T-shirts and oyster knives branded with the Eventide logo to socks featuring the Honey Paw bear. Its highest-end item is a sailcloth tote with oysters on it that sells for $225, but the best seller is the $30 T-shirt.

It’s a profitable sideline, but not a huge moneymaker – in part because the restaurants give away a lot of gear, according to Arlin Smith, co-owner and general manager of the restaurants, and the staff gets all the merchandise at cost. Restaurant workers like to wear merch from other restaurants, trading it “like playing cards,” Smith said. “All of our cooks are wearing shirts from Ramona’s and Palace Diner – you name it.”

 

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Eventide is a poster child for how something as simple as a T-shirt can help with branding and marketing. Smith once spotted a woman carrying an Eventide tote when he was boarding a plane in Austria. And Star Wars director J.J. Abrams, a celebrity regular at Eventide, was once photographed at a museum wearing an Eventide Oyster Co. T-shirt.

These socks feature the Honey Paw’s bear logo. The Portland restaurant often gives them away as gifts or donates them to charitable causes. Photo by Kristin Rocha

Before the pandemic, the Eventide gear sold both online and in-house, with in-house sales more robust because diners “wanted a token to take home” after their meal, Smith said. Then the pandemic forced the restaurants to close to indoor dining. Smith assumed that meant merchandise sales would be way off, but when he checked with the company’s accountant, overall sales had remained the same. Demand had just shifted to online. “If you really think about it, it’s incredible,” Smith said. “That was straight support” from customers.

Sales have been good enough that Big Tree Hospitality, the restaurant group that owns Eventide and Honey Paw, have been able to keep a staffer dedicated to merchandise on the payroll during the pandemic, Smith said.

Eventide and Honey Paw were also invited to be a part of a campaign called Merch 4 Relief, a program that asks artists to create merchandise for restaurants and then donates 95 percent of the profits from online sales to the restaurant. (The other 5 percent goes to the artist or a restaurant worker relief fund.) Maine & Loire in Portland was also a part of that program.

Charlene Peavey of Bellows Falls, Vermont, bought several Merch 4 Relief T-shirts, including the ones for Eventide and Maine & Loire. Eventide, she said, “is one of my all-time favorite restaurants.”

“I have worked in restaurants nearly my whole life,” she said, “and wanted to do my part in supporting my favorite places during COVID, especially in Portland.”

Smith said he’s now trying to figure out how to display Eventide merchandise effectively during the season for outdoor dining, as he sees the success that Duckfat, just across the street, had with its hat rack stand displaying Duckfat clothing.

Nancy Pugh, co-owner of Duckfat, says one of the big changes she’s seen during the pandemic is the ability to sell restaurant merchandise on new platforms. The pandemic forced many restaurants to start offering takeout, and for that they needed a platform for online sales. (In Duckfat’s case, it began offering takeout online for the first time.) When restaurants started including merch on their online menus, it encouraged customers to make impulse purchases, throwing in a T-shirt with their food order, Pugh said. “You can order a sandwich and order a hat,” she said. “It was never that easy before.”

Pugh has been using the extra time she’s had during the pandemic to improve the restaurant’s retail offerings and add more merchandise to keep up with the pandemic demand. “We might have had one beanie before,” she said. “Now I’ve got a baseball cap, a trucker hat.” This year she plans to add a koozie because people are buying beer to go.

The Duckfat trucker hat, like all the wearable merch, features the silhouette of a duck , sometimes subbing in for the “A” in Duckfat. Other items include hoodies and an infant onesie that shows the Duckfat duck lying passed out on top of the restaurant’s name, holding an order of fries with one wing and a Duckfat milkshake with the other. On the sleeve, it says “Milk Drunk.”

Milk drunk? This onesie has been added to the online shop and outdoor merchandise display at the Portland restaurant Duckfat. Photo by Kari Herer

Pugh said outdoor dining has helped boost sales. Before, the merchandise was displayed on the walls of the restaurant. Now it’s displayed outside on racks, where customers can get their hands on the gear while they’re waiting for their take-out order. If they can touch it and feel the fabric, Pugh said, they’re more likely to add an item to their order.

Restaurant merchandise isn’t always wearable, as Eventide’s tote, oyster knife, and an oyster bottle opener illustrate. At Central Provisions, owners Paige and Chris Gould have started selling ceramic ware stamped with the restaurant’s name, along with their T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats. They also sell their own spice blends, including a baja blend for fish and a North African ras el hanout. “It comes from Morocco, and it means ‘top of the shop,'” Paige Gould explained. “Each individual spice shop has its own version of ras el hanout, and it’s what they see as their best spice blend. Our custom spice blend has 27 different kinds of spices in it.”

Portland Hunt & Alpine Club sold T-shirts and sweatshirts before the pandemic, but when the bar/restaurant switched to outdoor dining only, owners Briana and Andrew Volk added an insulated Yeti mug and a high-quality blanket made by Portland-based Evangeline Linens. Briana Volk says she wasn’t sure how they would sell (the blanket costs $185), but both items “flew off the shelves.” The Yeti mugs sold out almost immediately, and Volk has had to re-order them twice.

“Those blankets, especially, are so gorgeous and so well made that it’s something you just want in your home anyway,” she said.

Most surprising to Volk is the large number of the online orders from all over the country. Social media has helped. A friend of the Volks who writes for the New Yorker posted a sweatshirt on Instagram, and Punch magazine posted the blankets and mugs. In both cases, the exposure caused a spike in sales.

Before the pandemic, Chaval on Portland’s West End sold shirts and beanies online, but has since added more shirts, a scarf, a baseball cap and sweatshirts, according to co-owner Ilma Lopez. She said they’ll sell five hats one week and none the next, so it’s not a reliable source of income. But she is hopeful that, longterm, sales will improve, and she plans to come up with more designs.

At the Thirsty Pig in Portland, the long game has paid off. The restaurant has been selling merchandise ever since it opened 10 years ago, and now lists 30 items on its take-out menu, including a Thirsty Pig bandana, apron, and cooler bag. This winter, the restaurant added more hats for diners who wanted to eat in one of its outdoor huts. Owner Allison Stevens said in an email that over the past year, average monthly sales of merchandise have maintained previous levels, “but during a pandemic, that’s a miracle.”

“Everything helps,” she said. “We sold ornaments at Christmas this year, and stickers go home with about every other guest. We don’t underestimate even the little sales.”

South Portland restaurant Judy Gibson had to close down two weeks after it opened because of the pandemic. Chef/owner Chris Wilcox quickly put together a small line of merchandise like this hoodie to help pay the bills. Photo courtesy of Chris Wilcox

For less well-established restaurateurs, selling merch can be like throwing a lifeline. Chris Wilcox, chef/owner of Judy Gibson in South Portland, didn’t have branded merchandise in his budget when he opened the restaurant last year. He was open for just two weeks before the pandemic forced him to close. That was when he decided to try selling a few items – T-shirts, a hoodie and a hat, all emblazoned with the name of the restaurant.

Wilcox said he’s making a little money on the clothing, but “it’s not going to save the world.” Over the winter, Wilcox has been frying take-out chicken to pay the bills. “We’re kind of at the point where it’s like, if it’s not bolted down and you want to buy it, I’ll sell it to you,” he said. “Anything that brings in more money is good for me.”

Chef Christian Hayes calls his new restaurant, Thoroughfare, “the punk cousin” of his fine-dining restaurant, The Garrison. Photo courtesy of Christian Hayes

One trend Wilkinson of Might & Main has noticed over the past year is that more restaurateurs, like Christian Hayes, are designing their own merchandise.

Hayes is a self-taught graphic designer who built websites and created album art when he was younger. “I wanted nothing more than to support a local printer,” he said, “but I couldn’t afford the inventory.”

Hayes describes Thoroughfare – the new, more casual restaurant he launched in Yarmouth this winter –  as “like the punk cousin of The Garrison.” It shows in his designs, which he wanted to keep “super approachable” and reflective of the take-out restaurant’s “indulgent fast food identity.” He’s designed characters for each sandwich, and they all appear on a single T-shirt he calls “Cast + Crew.” Captain Northstar (who has her own T-shirt as well) is a woman in an astronaut suit holding a hamburger in one hand and a hot dog in the other, fries tucked into a pocket. She is named after North Star Farm in Windham, where Hayes gets the lamb for his lamb burger. The Crispy Gochujang Chicken sandwich is represented by a hot pepper knocking out a chicken. A hungry shark bites into two Filayo Fish sandwiches. And a robot cowboy sells the BBQ Bacon Burger.

Hayes said he’s seen people picking up their Dandelion Market order wearing one of his T-shirts. It is, he says, “pretty heartwarming.”

Smells like quarantine spirit.


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