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Restaurant uniforms evolve to serve several purposes

Updated: 2013-08-06T20:28:53Z


The Kansas City Star

Celebrated chef Patrick Ryan once walked away from a chef’s position at a top Chicago hotel, mostly because he couldn’t stand the uniform he had to wear 50 to 90 hours a week.

So when Ryan was planning his Port Fonda restaurant in Westport, uniforms weren’t an afterthought. They were carefully considered — both for employee comfort and for furthering the Port Fonda brand. His workers now wear designer jeans, shirts and even hats by Kansas City’s nationally recognized Baldwin Denim.

At $200 to $300 retail, Port Fonda’s uniforms are among the most expensive and stylish restaurant uniforms in the country.

“We were taking a ‘bigger city’ approach, not only with the food and drink but with the design, the atmosphere, the music and what the staff were going to be wearing,” Ryan said. “We wanted a relaxed vibe, not stuffy. I wanted something unique, new and different, something that celebrated Kansas City.”

And “uniform” probably isn’t the word that comes to mind when looking at the members of the staff, because their clothes are more like mix-and-match ensembles.

Big business

Nearly one in 10 workers, or $13.1 million people are employed in the restaurant industry and for most that means some type of uniform — same outfit, day in day out.

Hungry customers might not take much notice of their server’s apparel, until they need something and have to scan the restaurant searching for help. Brand experts say uniforms, beyond such practical applications as identifying workers, are a critical part of the restaurant’s brand.

Indeed. Organizations as diverse as Playboy and the San Francisco 49ers take uniforms so seriously they have registered them with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.

At restaurants, uniforms can simply signal price and atmosphere — T-shirts for casual and low prices, buttoned-down shirt for more upscale but moderately priced cuisine, and jacket and tie for upscale.

Whether it’s a conservative country club or modern cutting-edge restaurant, a comfortable, stylish uniform also help recruit and retain workers, experts said. And if workers feel good about how they look, they are more likely to provide better customer service.

Multiple purposes

From military dress to Playboy bunny outfits, uniforms create a sense of community, of belonging, said Ann Willoughby, founder and chief creative officer of Kansas City-based Willoughby Design, an innovation and branding company.

“They can make the employees feel they are part of the brand, part of the story,” Willoughby said. “It identifies who they are, who works there, and signals to the public that someone is there to help them.”

Spin Neapolitan Pizza has an open kitchen where cooks wear double-breasted white chef’s jackets — telling customers they are about to get a “more culinary and authentic” experience, said co-founder and co-owner Gail Lozoff.

Spin’s servers wear black pants or jeans and a Spin T-shirt. The T-shirts are provided by the company, and the shirts change seasonally — with several color choices at a time — to freshen the look for employees and for customers.

“The uniforms are usually worn by young people, so you want something that complements young people’s bodies, not something that would look like what their mothers would wear,” Willoughby said.

At Standees, a new restaurant and movie theater complex in Prairie Village, members of the development team spent hours scrutinizing uniforms on mannequins and testing various fabrics for wear-ability, durability, and stain resistance. They settled on several styles for the restaurant and theater employees, outfits that are comfortable in the workplace and stylish enough to wear if they want to go for a beer afterward.

Black pants are standard at Standees, but then each position has its own shirt — button-down long-sleeved, pinstriped shirts on servers, untucked charcoal gray shirts with rolled up sleeves for bartenders, white chef’s coats for all kitchen workers from dishwashers to chefs, and gray Polo shirts for the theater ushers. Standees’ stylized “S” logo on the front of the shirts tie them all together. Hosts wear black jackets, and hostesses wear black skirts and black tops.

“They aren’t striped referee shirts or loud suspenders like in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Justin Scott, spokesman for Standees. “You don’t want them so noticeable that it takes away from the food and the decor.”

By design

Ryan of Port Fonda first planned to let his employees wear their own clothes. But that risked having them show up in something inappropriate and being sent home to change.

He likes to support other local companies and turned to Matt Baldwin of Baldwin Denim for ideas. GQ magazine recently called Baldwin one of the four best new menswear designers in the country.

For Port Fonda, Baldwin put together interchangeable pieces from his line — two types of denim pants, along with several T-shirt styles. He created a special denim waist apron with pockets for pens, guest check holders and phones for the servers, and full length aprons for the cook’s line. Many of the kitchen employees also wear Baldwin’s signature KC hat.

Port Fonda employees get a discount on the goods but still have to dig deep into their tip jar, with Baldwin jeans which can easily retail for around $200 and up.

“I dress it down after work or I put on a button-up to go out to dinner with my girlfriend,” said Josh Rogers, manager. “The jeans wear well and they are comfortable, and we can personalize them by wearing T-shirts, plaid shirts, solid colors.”

It’s what Ryan wishes he could have worn at his corporate chef job.

“Our uniform snapped at the neck and had baggy, Hitler-like pants that tied at the ankle,” he said. “Every day we would go to the laundry room and get our tops and bottoms. We worked in the basement and no one saw us. We could have been wearing burlap bags.”

The little black uniform

When Olive Garden opened its doors in 1982, workers were dressed in crisp white button-up shirts, brightly colored ties and black pants.

Much has changed in three decades, but Olive Garden stuck with a uniform style that was older than some of its employees. Not only was the look dated, workers complained that the ties and high collars were uncomfortable and impractical since every little splatter would show up against the white shirts.

Earlier this year, the chain ditched the look for a contemporary all-black pants, shirt and apron, with a yellow towel holstered on the side of the hip. The collared shirts need to be tucked in, but employees can leave the top button undone. Hostesses wear their own clothes as long as they are mostly all black.

Olive Garden called the new look “casually sophisticated.” But basic black also has become the standard look for uniforms because it’s cleaner, and workers standout in crowded restaurants. The re-branding also included new lunch and dinner menu items.

A variety of area restaurants both locally and corporate owned also have gone to basic black but put their own spin on the look.

For example, Westport’s The Corner Restaurant sends out a more causal vibe than Olive Garden by letting its employees wear jeans with their own black tops in a variety of styles.

“It’s ‘casual chic’ and not a lot of cost to them,” said co-owner Dawn Slaughter.

Trends in retail

Basic black is not only the uniform color choice at many restaurants. Retailers also have picked up the trend.

Macy’s employees have had a “mostly black” dress code for several years. Men can perk it up with any color shirt or tie, and women can wear colored tops and accessories.

J.C. Penney tried a more relaxed dress code about the same time it was moving away from cash register stations to roving remote devices, making it harder for customers to locate staff, retail experts said.

Now it is ending its sales force “hide-and-seek” just in time for back-to-school.

“Our associates are now moving to a polished business casual dress code,” said Kate Coultas, spokeswoman for J.C. Penney.

J.C. Penney polled its staff and found the ‘jcp Style’ was their clear preference, defined as brands sold at Penney’s stores. So there isn’t a set dress code, but employees working in fine jewelry or men’s suits might require more professional dress than employees working at, say, the Levi’s denim bar.

Coultas said, “jcp Style will be accompanied by badges or lanyards that will make it easier for customers to identify associates on the floor.”

Panned designs

Zagat Survey, a restaurant rating guide, said Olive Garden’s new uniform isn’t the best but it is still better than “the old gear - and miles ahead of the country’s worst uniforms.” In a blog feature earlier this year it cited the “10 Restaurant Uniforms We Wouldn’t Want to Wear.”

The list included:

•  Burger King and McDonald’s: “Take it from a former servant of the King — From ankle to shoulder these things feel like sandpaper.”

•  Domino’s: “These uniforms represent a school of thought that says, “Our employees are not humans, they are walking, talking billboards.”

•  Hooters: “A lot of 12-year-olds swear these are the “BEST. UNIFORMS. EVER.” But then 12-year-olds are known to have a notoriously unreliable fashion sense.”

•  Sonic Drive-In: The blue-and-red Polos are bad enough, but then there’s the awkward spectacle of watching local high schoolers navigate actual moving automobiles, while on roller skates and Rollerblades, just to bring you chili cheese tots.”

•  Wendy’s or Anywhere that an employer makes an employee wear a visor: This combines the indignity of getting yelled at by a stranger for accidentally hitting ‘3’ instead of a ‘2’ on the register with the shame of dressing like a golf pro, circa 1995.”

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