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Restaurants turn face masks into branded fashion accessories

Lotus of Siam co-owner Penny Chutima began designing cloth face masks with the restaurant’s name on them in an effort to eliminate waste.

“I was just making the masks for myself, because we were using a lot of the surgical masks,” Chutima explains. “So I just thought, it saves us (money), and it doesn’t ruin the earth.”

She was surprised by the response from customers.

“People were like ‘Hey, those masks are super-cool, can we buy some?’ And I was like, OK, maybe I’ll make a little bit more, just to be memorabilia from this time.’”

At The Black Sheep, chef Jamie Tran began getting similar requests after her staff started wearing custom face masks designed by their bartender, Terry Clark.

“Customers were telling my servers they think the mask is cool and they want to wear it,” says Tran, who is now selling them in her restaurant for $12 apiece.

While face masks, and rules requiring customers to wear them, have become divisive political issues for certain businesses, several local restaurants have embraced them as marketing opportunities.

“I’m a big believer in branding and marketing,” explains Sparrow + Wolf’s chef and owner Brian Howard, who quickly sold out of his first shipment of 200 branded face masks. “If I can have somebody support our brand and showcase it, then there’s an opportunity there.”

Few companies understand the intersection of marketing and fashion better the Hard Rock Café chain, which began selling Hard Rock face masks online in June. The response was so positive that they soon began offering them in the stores at their restaurants, with three different designs currently available at the Hard Rock on the Strip, alongside the assorted T-shirts, hats, pins and other merchandise.

“The guest response has been very, very positive,” says Benito Mendez, The Hard Rock’s vice president of merchandise, ecommerce and licensing. “Some of these masks rank in our top sellers.”

More and more local businesses seem to be catching on to the opportunity. When Rollin Smoke Barbeque originally received some custom masks as a gift from the company that designs their hats and jackets, Mike Moore began offering them for sale as a novelty at the company’s Summerlin location only. When the new regulations took effect, he began ordering more.

“Once we were (mandated to wear them) it was going to be either the cheap paper ones, which are hard to get and expensive, or the ones that she made for us with the logos,” Moore explains. “If you’re going to have to do it, we’re having a little fun with it.”

Chutima notes that when she lived in Thailand, young people who wore masks to protect themselves from pollution came to view them as a fashion accessory.

“Ninety percent of the students — university students, high school students — we always opted to find cute masks. For us it was kind of a fashion statement, while also protecting us.”

At The Hard Rock, Mendez believes Americans are coming around to that view.

“They’re going to be here for a little while, unfortunately,” he says of face masks. “So I think for right now, in the short-term and the mid-term, it’s a fashion accessory that is here to stay.”

Contact Al Mancini at amancini @reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter and Instagram.

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