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August 8, 2023
Cool Brands Are Hungry for a Food Collaboration

A wave of brands are teaming up in hopes that you’ll wear your love for baguettes on your sleeve (and on your wrist, and in your . . . candle collection?)

To eat good food is to be in the know, and if the rise of well-designed tote bags repping old-school red sauce joints and natural wine bars alike is any indication, people want others to know about their taste too. But lately, restaurants aren’t the only ones looking to get in on the popularity of food merchandise. 

Food brands, both emerging and legacy, are partnering with lifestyle brands to collaborate on crossover product lines. Los Angeles–based candle company Boy Smells partnered with the trendy nonalcoholic aperitif brand Kin Euphorics (of which Bella Hadid is a cofounder) to make psychedelic colored prayer candles with mood-enhancing scents in March, and also with Magnolia Bakery to put out a candle version of their iconic banana pudding in June.

In May, Brooklyn-based jewelry brand Catbird released a tiny 14-karat-gold croissant charm in collaboration with L’Appartement 4F, a bakery that began as a cottage business and opened shop just last year to lines that regularly snake down their block in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. South Asian–owned clothing brands like Abacaxi and NorBlack NorWhite partnered with Bay Area spice company Diaspora Co. to release tie-dyed sweat suits and printed aprons. Downtown beaded accessory brand Susan Alexandra is releasing a bag with Sweetgreen. That’s truly just the tip of the iceberg lettuce.

The cult of distilling our identities into the media we consume is a natural product of postmodernism.

And it makes sense that culture has led us here, specifically at this moment in time. “It’s getting harder and harder to make a dollar these days. There are so many brands, and if everyone has a business, everyone’s brands are going to have to share profits,” said Sue Chan, founder of Care of Chan, a PR agency and digital resource platform for all things food and hospitality. “It’s all about monoculture, it’s all about niche culture—in order to gain more consumers, more customers, more eyeballs, you’re going to have to reach into other market segments that are typically associated with other brands and industries.” 

Chan recalls that the predecessor to this trend also took place during circumstances of economic uncertainty. The embrace of an “American food culture” gained traction in a big way during the 2008 recession. Eater was just coming up and turning new restaurants into something to name-drop. Instagram launched in 2010, instantly transforming food photography into its own genre of online content, well before we even called it “content.” At the same time, spending habits were changing. No longer could the young generation (millennials) buy houses and cars, so money—and enthusiasm for spending it freely—was being funneled into a more affordable luxury: restaurants.

That rise of restaurant culture has evolved into a real consumer wish to engage with brands like status symbols. “People who are interested in food have disposable income, they have taste, they care about lifestyle,” Chan says. Which means people don’t just want to eat food they like, they want to know which dining rooms are filled with people just like them. They wanted to go to places like Jon & Vinny’s in LA or Mission Chinese Food in New York and see people who looked not like their bosses but rather like their friend groups.

On the brand side, these collabs are designed to tap into the intimate relationships between people and the fragrances we wear or the neighborhood bakeries we frequent with friends. Seeing them linked in a more official capacity perhaps synergistically grows our personal connection to both. But it does raise an interesting question on the brand side: Beyond the dollars to be made from the collaboration itself, what’s in it for them? 

Magnolia Bakery, for example, claims partial responsibility for a banana pudding candle on the shelves at Bloomingdale’s this June, but does that really translate to more foot traffic in their bakeries? How is this to be measured? Maybe measuring it isn’t even the point. 

For those who may have missed this episode of culture, Magnolia Bakery enjoyed a wave of popularity in the early 2000s thanks to its cupcakes appearing on Sex and the City. That association, and subsequent visits to the original Bleecker Street location, gave the show’s fans a chance to engage with the show without having to buy an issue of Vogue instead of dinner or afford a pair of Manolo Blahniks. A collab with a candle company whose iconic sans-serif typeface and color-saturated glass tumbler are often seen on the coffee tables of Instagram “it” girls and artsy friends of friends offers a similar affordable access point and aura of coolness—this time made not for television but for Instagram.

“How customers can experience the brand today goes beyond the stores,” said Sara Gramling, Magnolia Bakery’s VP of PR and partnerships. “So often people would come to a store in New York, Chicago, or LA, and say, ‘I saw you on Sex and the City,’ or ‘I saw you on Saturday Night Live,’ or ‘I saw you on Broad City.’ But now the point of connection is maybe a little different. Maybe it’s ‘I saw a great viral video.’” 

For L’Appartement 4F, which only just opened its bakery in 2022, collaboration with other small brands was part of the business’s DNA before it ever felt like a business strategy. When the bakery was still run as a two-person operation, primarily through social media and word of mouth, it made small influencer partnerships and product giftings with other rising Instagram shops like Shop Fleuri and Miels Hédène. Collabs and partnerships between social media creators have long been a staple move for individual platform growth, and L’Appartement 4F adopted that same mechanism.

Ashley Coiffard, co-owner of the bakery with her husband, Gautier Coiffard, created a consumer base that identified with her as a person by crowdfunding with a Kickstarter and connecting with customers in her DMs. For that reason, if a collaboration excites her, she’s confident it will have buzz. “I’ve curated a business where our customers are really like me,” said Coiffard, a longtime Catbird customer herself. When she received an email from Catbird about a collaboration, she knew it would sell out.

The cult of distilling our identities into the media we consume is a natural product of postmodernism. To read Joan Didion or watch Emma Chamberlain or have a Boygenius T-shirt communicates who we are to people—or at least that’s the idea. And now, this phenomenon has headed to the food world. “Consumerism” is the word on everyone’s lips right now. We love buying stuff, and despite what we know about its environmental and labor harms, we do it more than ever before. “I do think, at the end of the day, that we gravitate toward things we think are like-minded to us,” says Chan. “Whether we’re hoping something will signal a message to other people or to ourselves, it’s something we do because we feel represented by that brand’s philosophies.” 

Collaborations are here to stay, that’s for certain, but to what end can anyone feel seen by a scented candle? The field of collaboration is still fairly new and therefore still cool, but coolness is a fickle game. As more players enter the arena and collabs become more common, will the excitement last? I can’t say I didn’t fold for the banana pudding candle myself. But part of why the strategy works so well right now is that it’s novel. And once it no longer is, collab concepts will have to be more substantial to cut through the hype.