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Niche Focus: Serving Up New Biz

Here’s how you can offer a menu of services to help a restaurant niche that’s trying to get back to business as usual.

By James Andres, Contributing Writer

Besides serving food, many restaurants are creating swag displays to sell their logoed gear and promotional products. Photo provided by Precision 1 Apparel. 

August 13, 2021

It’s no surprise to anyone that the COVID-19 pandemic hit the restaurant industry hard. In 2020, restaurant sales totaled about $659 billion — a massive $240 billion decrease from expected levels, according to the National Restaurant Association. Despite the fact that restaurant and food-service sales are expected to post double-digit growth in 2021, it’ll still be tough for some places to make up for previous losses.

“From our vantage point, dining establishments are still hurting financially and hurting from the effects of not having adequate staffing,” says Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer at The Visual Identity Vault.

The good news is that the industry is resilient, and restaurant owners are working hard to get back to business as usual. Lisa W. Miller & Associates released national research in April 2020 asking respondents about the most joyful activity COVID-19 had taken away. About 81% of respondents said dining out. When asked what they’d do first when a sense of normalcy returned, visiting restaurants topped the list at 86%.

Translation: There are tons of foodies waiting in the wings and restaurants will be competing hard for their attention. A key part of that will heavily involve the need for branding and promotion, and that’s where apparel decorators come into the picture.

We asked a few decorators and other industry experts to weigh in on some of their tactics for helping restaurants that are on the rebound, along with which apparel styles, add-on products and decoration trends are winning them business on the food scene.

At Their Service
First, be ready to pour on the creativity. “The restaurant market gets creative with menus and beverages, but they get ‘stuck’ when it comes to apparel and promotional items,” says Alison Banholzer, owner of Wear Your Spirit Warehouse. “If you can show them the value in marketing and promotion, and be creative in developing their product line and designs, you’ll enjoy very loyal customers.”

Similar to decorators, supply chains still face challenges in many areas. “That’s why it’s a good idea to have several options for apparel and hard goods as you start approaching restaurants again,” says Kristine Shreve, director of marketing and outreach for Applique Getaway. “Having a primary and a backup that you get approval on can
save time.”

Safety in business dealings also has become extremely important to restaurant clients. While the country clearly is moving past COVID restrictions, shops should continue the fight to keep products safe for recipients, especially in the hard-hit food-service industry.

“Many customers in this space have come to expect decorators to go the extra mile, even with lifted restrictions.” says La Tonna Roberson, owner of T-Shirt Shop Dallas. “Maintaining a posted sanitation schedule and ensuring your customers that your shop is staying sanitized will give them peace of mind.”

As far as selling promotional goods, bulk and online buying has become key for restaurants. Keith Burwell, owner of Precision 1 Apparel, says the pandemic “definitely enhanced the ‘Amazon effect,’ so we’re doing a lot more online stores since people love to buy online. More restaurants are also creating swag displays to sell their logoed gear, and customers are more than willing to buy the logoed apparel and promo products.”

Pairing Apparel and Hard Goods
The two biggest apparel programs for restaurants are staff uniforms and fan merch for patrons to buy. “One important concept to keep in mind as you’re pitching programs is size-inclusive fashion, which is taking hold in the garment space,” Shreve says. “Selling apparel that fits a wider size range of people connects to the body-positive movement.”

Similarly, sustainability also is a huge driver for restaurant buyers. “This translates to selling garments that contain recycled material or that are made using eco-friendly processes and materials,” Shreve says.

Let’s break down a few options:
Staff Uniforms: Face masks (if still required), T-shirts, polos, caps and aprons
Manager Uniforms: Face masks (if still required), polo shirts
Fan gear: T-shirts, tank tops, hoodies, caps

Since sanitization always is at the top of restaurant owners’ minds, it’s no surprise that Roberson has seen an increase in requests for antimicrobial apparel, aprons and disposable items like drinkware. “Adding products to your shop that offer stain resistance and antibacterial properties lets your buyers know you’re thinking about their well-being,” she says.

Tracy Stearns, owner of Running Threads Screen Printing & Embroidery, sells a lot of branded pens to her restaurant clients. “Of course, everyone uses pens, but now everyone wants their own,” she says. “Restaurants give them to patrons to sign their bills, reducing cross contamination, and then they take them home.”

Doyscher has been getting requests for staff shirts, aprons and name badges. “A great intro package is bundling a T-shirt, polo, apron and nametag,” she says. “The restaurant can supply the sizes and names, and you can get these items into production very quickly, which they’ll appreciate.”

Besides T-shirts, Burwell has gotten a lot of requests for hats with leather patches. “Once things started opening back up this year, we’ve easily done more than 3,000 patch hats for various restaurants,” he says.

At Wear Your Spirit Warehouse, the team sells a lot of T-shirts, sweat shirts and baseball caps to restaurants, along with Polar Camel drinkware, koozies and bottle openers, both church-key style and corkscrews. “Since we’re in a beach resort area, they’re also looking for UV-protective and fishing apparel,” she says.

If you’re selling to restaurants that also host wedding receptions, you can get creative with special, higher-end gifts for wedding couples. “We laser etch wine boxes with the couple’s name and wedding date,” Banholzer says. “Then, the restaurant adds a bottle of wine or champagne to the box, and it makes a great branded marketing gift.”

The Boon of Online Stores
Online stores can be useful in a restaurant niche that usually has high staff volume and turnover. “Organizing staff purchases and supplying new staff with the required uniform garments and promo items could be a full-time job,” Shreve says. ”Having an e-store that new staffers could be referred to and knowing that your company will handle the fulfillment and shipping to the employee could be a huge weight off the purchasing company’s shoulders, and to them, well worth the cost.”

If you set up an online store, keep it fairly simple and branded with the purchasing company’s logo and information. Wear Your Spirit Warehouse hosts online stores and provides employee-uniform fulfillment for many restaurants and resorts.

“When pitching online stores for employee uniforms, we focus on the benefits of not having to purchase and store inventory, running out of one size and dealing with sizing issues,” Banholzer says. “We also discuss how it allows employees to purchase additional items that show pride in where they work and create great marketing for the establishment.”

Burwell’s team has been actively setting up online stores for restaurant customers. “Several of these are a print-on-demand model, so we’ll offer DTG, laser and embroidery,” he says.

Doyscher recommends approaching every restaurant client with an online store. “Plant the seed, and it’ll quickly become appealing to them,” she says. “We fufill an online store for a resort/restaurant, and they’re thrilled with the option.”

Bundling products for new staffers in a webstore also could be a huge time-saver for restaurants. “They’re an easy way to provide staffers required to wear logo wear with the necessary garments or items,” Shreve says. “A kit can also be a great way to get merchandise with logos out into the world for patrons.”

James Andres is the content manager for S&S Activewear. For more information or to comment on this article, email James at