For years, restaurants have sold merchandise at their locations as a way to promote their brands. These days, eateries appear to have evolved from that approach and, instead, are focusing on curating retail experiences within their food and beverage places that they claim speak more to their communities.
“In the beginning, many places did retail in restaurants for branding, selling shirts and aprons and hats and things like that. What is involved (for us) now is that you can incorporate other local products,” said Brian Lee, general manager at Herb & Eatery in Little Italy, which has a retail market portion that sells local honey, cheeses, olive oil, cookbooks and candles, among other items, made by local artisans.
“We (already) support local fishermen and stuff like that, but now, (we can also support) other local retail people… (It is) unique for us (to have) food and retail together — (things have) evolved from days of selling your own merch… (Now) it is more local products, stuff we can get at farmers markets on Saturdays,” Lee said.
In the beginning, the idea for Herb & Eatery was to sell house-made ice cream and sweets. And, at some point, it sold meats and cheeses at the counter. But, when owner Brian Malarkey was approached by local vendors like the owners of almond-based, San Diego-made Bitchin’ Sauce, who wanted to be a part of the market experience, Lee said Malarkey fell in love with the idea of supporting local business owners.
Lee said Herb & Eatery has a dedicated staff member on the market and retail side whose job is to scout the types of locally made items it wants to support and a sommelier that purchases wines for sale that are user-friendly and price-conscious.
Paula Peter, marketing lecturer at San Diego State University, said this shift in the customer experience by restaurants is a natural progression.
“They are finding ways to engage more with the consumer, not just the food and overall experience with the restaurant, but the ability to carry the experience home,” she said. “My understanding is, often this retail experience involves some local product or services and it’s a way to also show the involvement with the community by the restaurant and ability to say to customers, ‘We care about doing business that benefits our community and other shops in the area.’”
Will this shift in direction become a trend in the food service industry?
Lee believes it only makes sense if the space and concept lends itself to it. Chris Patino, co-owner of Raised by Wolves, which runs a boutique bottle shop within the property, said it was its location at the Westfield UTC mall that inspired him and his team members to think “outside of the box.” The shop focuses on rare and unique spirits and liqueurs, in addition to books, barware and accessories.
“Opening Raised by Wolves within a mall was/is a big risk, to say the least. However, from our point of view, it was an opportunity to essentially bring a more urban-minded focus and mentality to a more suburban crowd,” said Patino, adding that Consortium Holdings, the group behind Raised by Wolves, has successfully fostered this multifunctional retail/restaurant method throughout its venues in the downtown San Diego area as well.
“We’re in a mall, so let’s open up a shop filled with all of the (brands big and small) that we would absolutely love to serve to our friends and family at home… by running a business within a business has allowed us to extend our business hours and provide a unique service to our guests.”
It was this same service aspect that led Craig Applegate, co-founder of Carlsbad-located Casero Taqueria, to open the “Mercado” at his fast-casual Mexican food restaurant; for him, the idea was to create another avenue through which to interact with the community and this idea that customers can take a piece of Casero home with them after their dine-in experience ends.
Having opened earlier this year, Casero Taqueria sells house-made chips, guacamole, salsas, spicy carrots and ceviche at its market space, according to Applegate.
“It’s a great way to take a piece of Casero to your guests at home,” he said. “The market will be a small piece of our business but something we feel strongly about to engage with the community and offer something different than the average restaurant. This is an important part of our community involvement and allows our customers to be ambassadors for our brand.”