Skip to Content
Food & Drink

No Restaurant in the Twin Cities Does Merch Like Modern Times

The Chicago Avenue cafe is slingin' a lot more than donuts and eggs these days.

Em Cassel

You could head to Modern Times for a Kate Bush breakfast sandwich, or the reliably wonderful Southside Hash. You could pop in before a walk around Powderhorn Park to grab a pastry and a latte. 

Or you could stop in for a quick wardrobe refresh—a pair of Modern Times-branded bike shorts, perhaps, or a Carhartt beanie embroidered with the Minneapolis cafe’s cat logo, or even a camouflage cat-printed baby onesie.

Over the last few years, the left-hand side of Modern Times’ art deco building has come to hold a formidable array of merchandise. New designs are dropping all the time on Instagram, as if this was the account of a trendy fashion brand; passing the wall of shirts on your way to the counter, you might think you’ve stepped into a skate shop. 

No one is more surprised by this transformation than Modern Times owner Dylan Alverson. “I would not have ever thought I’d have been this focused on clothing at any point in my career,” he chuckles.

Alverson says hoodies and tees have been flowing out of the lime-green building “at an astonishing rate,” ever since Modern Times started ramping up its merch program in 2020. Alverson had already been designing the occasional shirt for a while when the pandemic hit; once the restaurant closed down, he started traveling around the city to deliver orders of hot sauce and shirts. 

The plan was just to get through the existing inventory. At the outset Alverson was selling everything he could, including grocery items from the kitchen. But as the pandemic lingered on, and with the restaurant already in need of a new website that could accommodate all of the online orders, Alverson figured, what the hell? It’s costly to have a restaurant sitting empty, and merch was a way to get some revenue while keeping people thinking about Modern Times. 

Which is how he and his wife wound up hand-dying T-shirts in their yard and calling up artist friends for donated designs of limited-run shirts. 

Em Cassel

In some ways, it was a full-circle moment for Modern Times, which has always been involved with a vibrant community of artists and home to a lot of intentional art. When the cafe opened in 2011 (it celebrated its 13th birthday this very week), the waiting room side of the building was still being used for art studios, and all of the tables and counters were hand-painted by local artists. 

But when it comes to cafe merch, “It did get a lot bigger than we expected,” Alverson says.

Listed on the website today: RealTree baseball caps, enamel pins, pocket tees, water bottles, zip-up hoodies, sweatpants, crewnecks, coffee mugs. Need a big tote bag? You can choose from one of three colors. A 3-D design that actually pops out of the shirt, sold with accompanying glasses? All yours for 25 bucks.

“What’s crazy is that our staff still gets excited and buys shirts,” Alverson adds. They’re the ones you’ll see joyously modeling the newest merch on Modern Times’ Instagram account, from gym shorts to cropped hoodies to blaze-orange beanies. 

Alverson still designs all the house Modern Times merch (“basically the cat-related stuff”) and occasionally collaborates with artists associated with the cafe. Elpis Enterprises, a nonprofit print shop at University & Vandalia in St. Paul that provides job training and work assistance to young people experiencing homelessness, prints all the shirts.

Asked whether this is something that actually makes money for Modern Times or just a fun thing to do in addition to slinging orders of eggs and sandwiches, Alverson doesn’t equivocate. “Honestly, sometimes, I’m like, ‘This is the thing that’s turning a profit,’” he says. 

The cost of food has surged about 20% over the last four years, while the price of blank shirts has barely budged. The margins on a T-shirt compared to those on a breakfast platter? It’s not even close. Alverson will sometimes juice the margins further by buying lots of blanks that have been deemed imperfect by manufacturers, passing the savings on to shoppers and diverting unused clothing from a landfill in the process. 

“It’s part of why we’ve expanded our merch area and started selling more stuff,” he says. “It is a dependable income stream, and it can really help supplement, especially in the lean months.”

It’s enough to make you wonder why more restaurants don’t start a merch line of their own. But then, Modern Times’ punky southside vibe isn’t replicable just anywhere—it’s tough to imagine folks finishing dinner at Demi and snagging a tie-dye skull shirt on their way out into the North Loop night. 

“I guess we’ll just keep doing it as long as people keep buying them,” Alverson says. “And so far, to our amazement, we have not oversaturated the shirt market.”

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter