When designer and restaurateur Sir Terence Conran took over Quaglino’s in 1991, a small part of his rejuvenation of the large restaurant in the smart St James’s area of London involved creating a metal Q-shaped ashtray for each table.

Object of desire: Quaglino’s famous ashtrays

In the days of smoking in restaurants and pubs Quaglino’s also sold cigarettes, which helped the ashtrays become a well-used feature. What he couldn’t have foreseen was the amount of theft involving those well-designed items would play a role in Quaglino’s becoming an era-defining restaurant.

The restaurant gained many column inches about those ashtrays, with an estimated 25,000 stolen in the first ten years of Conran’s ownership. They were going “missing” at such a rate the decision was made to sell them in smart gift boxes for £15. This didn’t prove as successful as Conran hoped but this story highlights how restaurants and food brand merchandise is nothing new.

Quaglino’s followed a move by Hard Rock Cafe to make merchandise an integral part of its proposition. The clever part of Hard Rock’s mission was to ensure each restaurant had its own T-shirt with its home city emblazoned across the front. This created a desire to collect the shirts, which itself drove footfall into the restaurants. Others have followed its lead including one early adopter, Italian motorcycle fashion chain Deus Ex Machina, whose clothing features the addresses of its stores’ cities. 

Many people will look down on such items when compared with those covetable Quaglino’s ashtrays – even though Conran’s creations were accessories to shortening lives at a much quicker rate than a Hard Rock quarter-pounder.

But clearly those smart cookies at Hard Rock Cafe were on to something way before others because merchandise is arguably as important today as it has ever been. “Merch” extends memories of a restaurant visit way beyond the initial experience and helps to feed social media’s ravenous appetite.

Perhaps we’re moving towards a situation where the T-shirt becomes more important than the meal itself in the same way people are attracted towards the gift shops in galleries and museums before they’ve even seen a single piece of art or exhibit. Why bother to pay to see the actual painting when you can buy the postcard for a snip of the price?

This might be a little far-fetched but you can’t dispute the rise of merchandise. Even McDonald’s has recognised its value. Having been reluctant to get involved, the company changed tack a couple of years ago and started selling cleverly designed merchandise at its convention for employees and operators. Items were feverishly snapped up, leading McDonald’s senior vice-president of global marketing Colin Mitchell to see potential to make some money while enabling the Instagram generation to “deploy their fandom”. 

Since then, the company has been building the variety of branded items it sells online through its Golden Arches Unlimited store and a pilot within a flagship Chicago restaurant. McDonald’s joins other major foodservice brands such as KFC and Taco Bell in spotting merchandise can drive a healthy revenue stream to offset tough food sales on the high street.

If it’s golden then it’s McDonald’s

With the larger restaurant operators flogging merchandise, supplying branded food items to supermarkets and handling increasing delivery orders, these are interesting times for bricks and mortar and what share of total revenue they will drive in the future for major foodservice brands.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.