Comprised of just three stitched together pieces of cotton, for generations now the t-shirt has functioned as a really basic way of telling the world who and what you are.
Long championed by music fans and politicos alike as a form of self-expression, over the years the humble t-shirt has become a great visual shorthand for promoting – and defending – causes close to your chest.
Now they’re being adopted by another group with a cause: the Manchester hospitality sector.
From late-night pizza parlours to gin bars, mental health coffee shops and hoagie spots, there’s now a glut of businesses in the city working with local artists to create their own design-savvy merchandise – and locals have been quick to snap them up.
It’s not all t-shirts, either. There’s beanies, caps, tote bags, jumpers, hoodies – you name it, someone in the hospitality scene has stuck a design on it and marketed it to their customers during Covid.
But this is not a vanity project, far from it. Rather, the income stream that merch sales have brought in has been invaluable to struggling Manchester businesses over the past year and a half.
For some, it’s also served as a small act of rebellion against decision-makers they feel have let them down in their time of need.
Interestingly, some of the earliest people to grasp this within hospitality were the staff themselves.
In October last year, a group of Manchester bartenders got together (virtually, we assume) to ask how the hell they could support and help those that weren’t in as fortunate a position within the hospitality industry.
At the time, many of their fellow employees were losing their jobs and there was only one charity that seemed to be helping them: Hospitality in Action.
The solution? Sell some merchandise and donate the proceeds to charity.
They quickly moved to create some tongue-in-cheek MAGA-style hats that read ‘Make Bedtime Late Again’ – raising much-needed funds for struggling teammates as well as awareness for their cancel the curfew campaign.
Others were quick to follow.
At Atlas Bar on Deansgate, a spot renowned for having the best and biggest collection of gin in the city, bosses moved to create their own Premium Small Batch London Dry Atlas Gin as a way to bring the bar back into people’s homes.
They – like many others – also launched a range of “at home” experiences, which quickly got snapped up by customers fed up with supermarket gins.
“The revenue has created much-needed cash flow, which certainly supported paying bills through lockdown,” acknowledges Managing Director Elaine Wrigley when we chat about the impact of the past year.
But one place in Manchester that has perhaps done more than any other on the merch front is part-time pizza parlour Crazy Pedros, part of The Liars Group.
It all began with customers buying ‘pay it forward’ vouchers, says Nick Coupland, head of marketing and social, when we catch up on how things were during that crazy time in March last year, but things quickly evolved beyond that.
The company has always sold merchandise for Pedros and has long worked with local artist Harrison Edwards on their branding across the group to come up with quirky designs, from pizza boxes that look like actual pieces of art to bespoke cans of Pedro’s Hooch.
But things really picked up when they started selling their politically charged ‘Buck Foris’ t-shirts in October following the Tier announcements.
These sold out almost instantaneously, Nick tells us – adding that they saw a 400% increase in sales after releasing the designs online.
For many loyal restaurant fans, buying merch has become an easy way to support their favourite eateries through a series of lockdowns that has left much of Manchester’s hospitality in rags.
The income has been especially important to the city’s many bars and pubs without a food offering, who have spent more of the past year closed than open.
It’s not been an easy one for the sector. In fact, according to United City, from March 2020 to March 2021 Greater Manchester was only in restrictions equivalent to Tier One for a total of three weeks.
This means, in the space of a year, hospitality businesses (which account for 33% of all employment in Manchester) lost out not just on their all-important Christmas trade, but also Bank Holidays, Pride celebrations, Halloween, and more.
It’s also perhaps unsurprising that the sudden increase in demand for restaurant t-shirts has aligned with the closing of gig venues and nightclubs.
In a way, going out for dinner has become the new “going out”, and was emphasised all too clearly at Escape to Freight Island’s chaotic KANTINA weekend, which somehow managed to create a queueing system more disastrous than Manchester Pride’s ill-fated 2019 festival.
Whatever the reason, things have certainly changed and, as ever, Manchester is pushing back.
The DIY attitude of the punk era is in vogue once again, and this time it’s Manchester’s restaurants and bars leading the charge.