Whether it be exclusive apparel or a beer-of-the-month club, restaurants are finding revenue in retail tie-ins.

Brand extensions don’t have to morph into costly, time-consuming forays into retail or food and beverage manufacturing with ambitious ROI goals. Creating a line of branded T-shirts or starting a monthly beer or wine club can broaden a restaurant’s reach beyond its existing market or fortify customer loyalty. The key? Make it something that resonates, that you’d want to buy.

Chris Degan, president of Dallas-based Tricky Fish, loves his brand’s look: a cartoonish, big-headed catfish with shades and an underbite whose tagline reads, “Live Life Off the Hook,” in blocky, all-capital letters. As younger generations embrace logo tees once again, the chain commissioned the same company that designed its sister brand Razzoo’s Cajun Café’s merchandise to create a focused line of casual-chic, logo-bearing cotton T-shirts and sweatshirts, baseball caps, breathable fishing shirts, and water-resistant polos in popular “comfort colors” like sage, brick, and washed denim.

“It speaks to the brand and the way I see the brand in my head,” Degan says. “I see it as more of a lifestyle [embodying] all those vacation fishing destinations along the Gulf Coast. When you sit on the Gulf and watch the sunset, there’s a certain color palette that evokes a feeling or a general sense of calm, if you will. Almost everybody has memories of a family vacation like that.”

Investing barely $10,000 in the venture, Tricky Fish’s employs a twofold strategy. First is marketing the merch to people in its existing market. The second and more involved approach targets a few cherry-picked areas where the brand doesn’t have a presence (especially college campuses) with sponsored Google and Facebook ads, just to see whether people’s interest was piqued enough to visit the website. Ahead of this year’s spring break, Tricky Fish’s internal marketing team also had several dozen custom shirts made featuring embroidered fraternity house symbols on the sleeve, which the brand sent to the corresponding houses at five colleges.

“The goal for us is to see whether or not we can do some sort of appreciable business with retail, but it’s not our focus; we run restaurants,” Degan says. “My thought was if we could get some traction around the brand, then before going into a new market, lead on the apparel side, get them out there, and grow brand awareness before we got into the market.”

The team behind Huntington Beach, California–based casual dining chain Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar also looked inward when thinking about extending the brand’s reach, to the owners’ deep love of good beer. In October 2018 the chain started a quarterly Lazy Dog Beer Club, which costs $35 per quarter or $140 for an annual charter membership and includes a seat on the beer club advisory board. Each kit is based on a unique theme, like outer space or wilderness survival, and comes with eight hand-picked bottles or cans of hard-to-find beers; custom merchandise, like an embroidered cooler bag and prints; and in-store access to upgraded draft pours and special beer releases between kits.

“We have been partnering with craft breweries on our house beers since we opened our doors in 2004,” says chief marketing officer John Williams. “The beer club is an evolution of that. It’s a way for us to connect with our guests who love beer and share some of our favorite brewers with them.”

The brand leverages said craft brewery partnerships to incorporate limited-release collaborations like Space Cadet, a seasonal blood orange wheat brewed with San Diego–based Saint Archer Brewing Co., and super-limited releases like Basecamp Imperial Pilsner from farm-to-barrel brewery Almanac Beer Co. in Alameda, California.

“We partner with breweries that are at the top of their game but aren’t necessarily well-known for many of our members,” Williams says.

It’s a group effort between the home office team that develops the calendar of releases and employees in-store who build connections with and get feedback from members. The ultimate goal is to curate the kinds of styles and breweries that will also become members’ favorites—and, in the process, help those breweries reach the next level.

So far, Lazy Dog is seeing customers’ deeper connection with the brand pay off through increased frequency from beer club members, Williams says. “It’s allowing us to build loyalty in a very genuine, authentic way.”

He reports an enthusiastic response from beer drinkers of all ages, “from real beer geeks to guests that love beer but aren’t as deep in the beer scene.” Most notably, the club is bringing in more millennial guests.

Indeed, there’s a level of uncertainty in the concrete ROI of these kinds of brand extension efforts, evident in Degan’s lukewarm “Eh,” response when asked how the clothing line is performing.

“It’s not like we’re spending a gazillion dollars,” he says. “I don’t think you can look at those things and say, ‘I spent X, therefore I need to get Y in return or else it was a waste of time.’ Sometimes you dip a toe in the water and see what works. When it’s about building awareness, you’re not going to see a dollar-for-dollar return. It’s marketing; it’s hard to quantify.”

Feature, Marketing & Promotions