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Restaurant Uniforms: It’s Not Black and White

Picture wait staff in three different outfits: a tuxedo; a kimono; or jeans and a bandana. Each image conjures a possible uniform and an idea of where you might be, what level of service to expect and even how much you’ll spend. At your restaurant, how you outfit your team says a lot about the type of establishment you run. Follow this expert advice for choosing the right restaurant uniforms.

Uniforms as Brand Identity

Uniforms support and project the brand image of a company,” says Dominique Isbecque, founder of the Association of Image Consultants International and executive director of the Image Resource Center of New York. “You need to determine the touch points where it’s communicated. Where do customers intersect with employees?” Servers are your front line, and how they look is key.

Maureen “Mo” Shaw of Mo Shaw Hospitality Consulting in Seattle adds: “Your brand vision needs to be very clear for any restaurant, whether corporate, independent, casual or fine dining. It should reflect the style of the concept.” For example, at a seafood joint with a playful feel, uniforms might include a navy stripe representing the nautical component combined with a denim pant to set a casual tone.

While black and white waiter and waitress uniforms still have a place in a formal dining room, more often than not, some element of style has been added, whether it’s a black shirt for a sleek, sophisticated look, a striped server apron for added color or a patterned tie for all servers. However you customize your restaurant uniforms, make sure the look suits the feel of your dining room.

Basic Guidelines

How can front-of-house uniforms support and project the restaurant’s image? Isbecque has a few tips:

  • Color should be consistent with brand image
  • Style should be congruent; match the formality or informality of the operation
  • Fit should match concept; modern styles are typically more form fitting and traditional styles looser

Another factor in choosing your uniforms is your typical patron. “What are guests going to wear when they dine with you?” asks Shaw. “You want to emulate the demographic you’re intending to attract.”

Dollar Factor

One of the first decisions you need to make is whether you’ll provide the uniform or if your employees will be responsible for providing them. While you have more control if you supply them, you also need to buy and maintain them. It’s more of an issue for small restaurants where volume may not support this extra expense. And some states may have laws about what employers can require employees to provide.

“In Washington State, the default traditional black pant and white shirt came from a law requiring employees ‘have the clothing in their wardrobe,’” says Shaw. Check with your state restaurant association to determine any limitations in your area.

Another option is to meet your staff halfway. “We keep it simple with our uniform,” says Birmingham’s J. Clyde Hot Rock Tavern and Alehouse co-owner and general manager Susan Hartley. “Servers provide their own black dress pants and black shoes. We provide them with J. Clyde T-shirts. They’re also free to wear T-shirts from Alabama craft breweries represented at the restaurant.” Logo hoodies are provided in cooler weather when serving outdoor diners. This casual look suits the beer hall theme and reinforces the local connection to partner brands served at the restaurant.

Managers wear J. Clyde logo polos or button-downs. This keeps the brand up front while providing a subtle differentiation of status for guests. “I feel really strongly that attire should be consistent so guests can identify staff,” Hartley says.

Keep It Clean

Food service is a messy business. Keeping waiter and waitress uniforms clean is an important part of overall sanitation and image.

Unless you’re operating in a hotel, chances are you don’t have an in-house laundry. Some restaurateurs send uniforms out for cleaning on a regular basis, and others put the onus on employees. Choose durable, color-fast fabrics for long-term wear. “Fabric blends hold color better and are generally easier to clean,” says Isbecque.

Shaw sees aprons as a strong trend right now, which helps keep clothing clean while visually unifying staff. Customizable, easily laundered and cost effective, aprons come in a variety of styles and fabrics, so finding a brand fit shouldn’t be a challenge.

Whatever you select, remember that color and style should speak to your brand’s image. When chosen well, restaurant uniforms help tell your story.

Anne Nisbet has spent her career working with chefs in restaurants, catering and culinary event production, absorbing their tips, tricks and tales along the way. She is the culinary director for the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, OR, where she lives and dreams of some day raising chickens and honeybees. You can find her on Google+.

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