As a native Jersey girl, I'm no stranger to the placemat advertisement. The paper placemats, usually white with blue ink, tiled with local business logos are a diner staple. But restaurant advertisements are evolving, and the next step may be brand/restaurant collaborations.
The most publicized example of this new trend was at Danny Bowien’s NYC Mission Chinese Food Brooklyn location. In May, Bowien added a section to the menu called “The Great Buy!” featuring dishes that incorporated AriZona Iced Tea. Yep. AriZona Iced Tea - the one that costs $.99 at the gas station convenience store. At first, the collaboration may seem curious. Is AriZona just trying to infuse itself into multiple unique markets to introduce a new generation to the beverage? They did, afterall, recently collaborate with Adidas, as well, to release limited edition AriZona sneakers. Or did Bowien sell-out?
When asked, the owner-operators of AriZona, Wesley and Spencer Vultaggio, explained that they and Bowien, “believe in the democratization of culture – price shouldn’t be a barrier to great food and beverages.” A plausible enough explanation, considering the AriZona branded items on the menu, including items such as Smoked Green Tea Chicken Noodles and Mucho Mango Fried rice, were priced at $9.99, and the AriZona-inspired dessert, Concord Grapeade Ambrosia, in true AriZona fashion, was only $.99. Motives become murkier when you learn that in addition to the menu items, Mission Chinese Food also stocked a customer-accessible fridge by the front door with AriZona teas for purchase, and offered limited-edition AriZona branded merch, such as chopsticks and tees.
Once celebrity chefs became a thing, celebrity chefs endorsing food products became a thing soon after. Chef Aaron Sanchez advertises for Cacique cheese, Chef Alex Guaranschelli hosts commercial spots about how to incorporate Fisher Nuts into her recipes, and Tom Collichio has even advertised for Diet Coke. But advertising outside of your restaurant is seen differently than advertising within.
The Bowien/AriZona partnership was not exactly praised by restaurant critic for the New York Times, Pete Wells. Among other criticisms, he accused Bowien’s collaboration with the sugary drink company as being insensitive to the slightly higher-than-average rates of diabetes and obesity in Bushwick, the neighborhood where the restaurant is located. Bowien made no comment when asked about the health implications. Bowien did, however, stick to his explanation that he started his restaurant as a backlash to fine dining culture and his populist mindset doesn’t appeal to critics.
The AriZona/Mission Chinese Food collaboration only lasted a month, but the effects are still being felt. Bowien didn’t disclose the details of his arrangement with AriZona, but one may assume that AriZona paid Bowien for the menu feature. So when restaurant margins are already tight, and costs are rising, these potentially lucrative partnerships may become more and more common.