Gen Z's web-fueled love affair with chain restaurant merch

Who wants a KFC bucket hat or a Panera purse? They do

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published July 8, 2023 12:30PM (EDT)

Panera Merchandise (Photo courtesy of Panera)
Panera Merchandise (Photo courtesy of Panera)

In late 2019, when the pandemic slowly began wreaking havoc in all sectors of life, the food industry was hit hard as many restaurants struggled to stay afloat. Many had to temporarily shut down their services. Others weren't so lucky and had to shut down operations completely.

As dreary as it all was, several restaurant and fast food chains used the opportunity to revamp their marketing techniques. That includes creative social media posts — namely on TikTok, where several businesses, like Wingstop, SONIC and KFC, meshed Gen-Z humor with food advertising. That also includes new menu offerings. And, better yet, nostalgic menu offerings, such as McDonald's limited-time adult Happy Meals.

A few major chains even released their own merchandise, from seasonal trinkets to full apparel and accessories, and garnered favorable responses from consumers. People were ecstatic when Pizza Hut — in partnership with Chain — the Los Angeles based pop-up culinary collective, released its limited-edition reversible Hut Hat. The reversible bucket hats touted Pizza Hut's iconic red roof on one side and a checkered design with black, white and red on the other. Prior to the Hut Hat, there was KFC Russia's limited-edition bucket hats, which are adorned with the brand's iconic red and white stripe pattern and logos, along with the limited-edition clothing line released by KFC's U.K. wing.

Perhaps the most notable food accessory sensation is Panera's chic and tasty BAGuette bag, which is essentially an elongated green purse that resembles a loaf of French bread. The bags initially sold out, then were restocked only to sell out again. A few bags were later resold on eBay for more than $200. One seller even listed the bag for an astounding $3,290. 

Time and time again, food merchandise has remained a hit amongst customers and those perpetually online alike. So to keep up with the demand, several restaurant chains have launched online merch shops in an effort to boost sales and provide customers with all the food-themed merchandise they can dream of.

The ongoing trend first began in 2021, when Cheez-It launched its self-proclaimed "first ever online store" — fittingly called The online shop has everything from clothing to drinking accessories to fun miscellaneous items. There's Cheez-It-themed socks, beanies and hoodies and a onesie. There's a can koozie, dual wine sleeves, and a wine tumbler. There's even a fanny pack, an apron, and a fleece blanket.

Of course, because Cheez-It is a famed snack brand, its online marketplace also carries the signature snacks, like an exclusive Extra Toasty Superfan 4-Pack that includes brand new Extra Spicy, Extra Cheesy, and Cheddar Jack varieties with a box of the original version of Cheez-Its Extra Toasty crackers.

"The Cheez-It brand is always looking for new ways to connect with fans, and through this online shopping experience we're offering consumers a new platform to enjoy everything they love about Cheez-It in a fresh, exciting way," Jordan Narducci, Kellogg's director of global direct to consumer ecommerce, said in an announcement, per Food & Wine. "This Direct-to-Consumer site gives us the opportunity to bring future food innovations to market faster than ever before, while also collecting feedback from our consumers in real time."

Following suit was Red Lobster, which in November 2022, launched their first digital pop-up shop for the holiday season at The limited-time-only shop reopened after three years and sold a slew of unique merchandise specific to seafood and the Red Lobster brand. There's an ugly sweater with an insulated pocket for Cheddar Bay Biscuits, a Cheddar Bay Sleigh Ugly Sweater, a Claw Hoodie, Critter Beanie, and a Red Lobster vintage-style snapback cap. There's also a trio of Red Lobster ornaments along with an ornament dedicated to Cheddar, the rare orange lobster that was found and rescued from a Red Lobster location in 2022.

In the same vein as Narducci, Red Lobster's chief marketing officer, Patty Trevino said the restaurant's holiday online shop was all for their loyal fans, who could "bring their love of Red Lobster home for the holidays."

The most recent addition to the trio is Panera, which opened its first official online merchandise storefront, The Panera Shop, in April of this year. In addition to the iconic BAGuettes, the store offers other Panera-themed swag, or "carb couture," like mac and cheese tracksuits, "all my friends are bread" crewnecks, and even a toddler onesie that reads "Just Baked."

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It's not hard to see that online merch shops are a slow yet ongoing trend in the restaurant industry — two is a coincidence, but three is a trend, per the age-old adage. As I previously wrote in an April piece on food and fashion, casual fast food continues to be hot and buzzy subjects for content creators, who have garnered significant followings simply by sharing menu hacks, mukbangs and videos of themselves eating their go-to orders from their local Mickey D's. Such content is enticing, attractive and tempting — much like the food that's being spotlighted. Restaurant-specific merch only adds to that buzzy factor, allowing for restaurants to not only garner a customer-base but also, a fan-base.

That, in turn, helps boost revenue and overall sales. In a May 23 announcement, Panera mentioned that it has "strengthened its leadership in the fast casual segment by expanding its leading digital capabilities, which today account for 53% of total sales at Panera Bread." The brand also increased its loyalty base to 53 million members and launched an innovative loyalty subscription model that has resulted in 25% of all Panera transactions now coming from Unlimited Sip Club members. The club is part of Panera's greater reward membership called MyPanera loyalty, which offered exclusive-access to their online store from May 1 through May 7. Other perks include special offers, birthday rewards, discounts and more.

Whether other casual restaurants will jump on the trend is still to be seen. But it certainly seems pretty likely. Perhaps Pizza Hut will be the next to open up its own online store, where Hut Hats and other pizza-themed paraphernalia will be readily available for purchase.

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Analysis Casual Fast Food Clothing Stores Gift Shops Panera Red Lobster Restaurants Snacks Trends