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Toronto restaurants use social media, local artists to make exclusive branded streetwear with splashy, limited-time ‘drops’

It’s not uncommon for a restaurant to sell out of a popular menu item — when this happens, staff will say the item is “86’d.” Last week, popular Dundas West restaurant Imanishi Japanese Kitchen found themselves 86’d — in less than two hours — on a slightly more unconventional item: a branded hoodie.

The sweatshirt, which went for sale at the restaurant at noon and was 86’d by 2, was part of a new project from Toronto streetwear company WCROW called Local Series, which partnered with five local restaurants and bars — Imanishi, plus Bernhardt’s and Dreyfus, Uncle Mikey’s, and Man of Kent — with local artists for limited-run clothing “drops” that went live last week. Only 20 hoodies per restaurant were released, all available for sale in-person only, and they were first come, first served — once they were gone, they’re gone.

“We figured, if we separated the drops, it would highlight each restaurant better,” says Tomo Hosogoe, WCROW’s co-founder and design director. “And that’s the whole idea: it’s to drive awareness, and to offer a little financial support for each place.”

At the time of each drop, participating restaurants (and WCROW) featured the story behind the design on their Instagram account, as well as a bit of information about their affiliation with the artist. On Nov. 19, for instance, Dreyfus wrote that their hoodie design — which featured an illustration of Devil’s Island by artist Joel Malkin — related “their current experience” during COVID-19 to Jewish artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus’ exile on Devil’s Island. Michael Kim, owner of Uncle Mikey’s, was able to collaborate with artist and former dishwasher Eliot Teiji Reid on their hoodie; Kim calls Reid their “dishwasher-slash-creative director.”

Each hoodie costs $125, and $100 from each sale will go directly to the participating restaurant. The hoodies were provided by Peros Garment Factory, also located in Toronto, which sold them to WCROW for $25 each; Bait Shop and Shinobi Studios, which did the garment printing, worked pro bono.

The tactics employed by WCROW — a timed release, a limited run, artist collaborations, and the strategic deployment of social-media promotion — mirrors those used by popular streetwear brands such as Supreme, whose wares are highly-coveted (and widely known) in no small part due to their exclusivity. With Local Series, WCROW is hoping for the same effect: splashy, limited-time “drops” will move product, sure, but they’ll also build hype for the restaurants featured in the collaboration, and not just the sweaters themselves.

“It’s really not that much money that we’re raising,” Hosogoe says. “Maybe we’re helping pay someone’s wages, or a few expenses. Ultimately, we hope to be driving a bit of business towards these places, whether it’s delivery or takeout, beyond the hoodies.”

With Local Series, WCROW joins a number of local businesses that are capitalizing on high-hype streetwear marketing tactics to both drive awareness and funnel revenue into restaurants whose bottom lines have dipped due to the pandemic. Famiglia Baldassarre, for instance, recently released a series of limited-edition snapbacks, while west end wine shop Grape Witches is now selling a limited-run tee with Spa Boy, to benefit Sistering. Hong Shing Chinese Restaurant, which has operated for more than 20 years on Dundas West, sells its own line of basketball jerseys and shorts — the restaurant has sponsored a team in the Megacity Basketball League for four years now — and also recently branched out into lifestyle gear, including a branded skateboard, which the restaurant released in early November.

“Our restaurant now has three pillars,” says Calvin Li, Hong Shing’s owner who took over operations of the restaurant from his parents a few years ago. “Those are food and drink, obviously, as well as community, and now lifestyle.”

Li has leveraged his appreciation of streetwear brands into Hong Shing’s merch marketing, regularly featuring members of the Hong Shing basketball team modelling apparel for sale, and teasing soon-to-be-released merch on Instagram. Hong Shing’s first major lifestyle marketing campaign will take place in February 2021, to coincide with Chinese New Year.

For Li — as with the WCROW initiative — developing a cohesive brand is only partly about finding an alternative revenue stream. It’s a pandemic pivot that, he says, will likely become a permanent part of the restaurant’s operations model. “We need to find different ways of making money, but we also want to find ways to be top of mind for people when they’re thinking about their lifestyles overall,” Li says. “Especially now, in this climate, if you market yourself as just a restaurant, people will only think of you when they’re hungry.”



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