Choosing the Right Source and Type of Table Linens for Your Restaurant

With all those food and beverage costs, it may seem like there are more important expenses to consider than restaurant table linens. But they are one of the most controllable line items in your overhead budget. Choosing the right source and type of linens is key to supporting your concept and improving your bottom line.

Types of Linens

The basic restaurant linens include:

  • Placemats
  • Table covers and cloths
  • Napkins
  • Table skirts

There are three main materials for napkins and table covers — fabric, paper and plastic. What you choose is based on your restaurant concept.

Casual, pizzeria, food truck, diner and café concepts lend themselves to paper and plastic because of their less-formal atmospheres. Paper and plastic table covers and napkins that are recyclable and/or made from recycled materials make sense if you want to project environmental friendliness.

Paper and plastic tabletop supplies items are often economically priced, but that shouldn’t be the only consideration. “A mistake is choosing for operations and not experience,” says Clark Wolf, president of Clark Wolf Consulting in New York City. For instance, less-expensive paper napkins might make budgetary sense, but not if guests have to use five of them instead of one or two. That seems trivial, but it adds up fast. Plastic table covers are easy to wipe down, but can be stubborn when it comes to stain removal — and stained linens make it easy for people to question your sanitation standards. “Choose something you’d want to eat off of,” Wolf suggests.

When should you opt for cloth placemats, napkins and other restaurant linen items? “When it strengthens the experience and creates profits,” Wolf says. “Or when your tables are really ugly.” The profits part is important, because cloth napkins and table covers can be expensive.

Polyester and cotton-blend linens are more durable, they stand up to repeated washings and often resist wrinkles. But choose wisely, warns Alice Christner, co-owner of Christner’s Prime Steak & Lobster in Orlando, FL. Choose lower-quality material and you “suffer in the long run should rips and tears begin to happen on a frequent basis,” she says.

The highest-end concepts insist on 100 percent natural fibers, which convey an air of quality and formality. But they, too, have a downside. “They can’t take strong chemicals and they need to be pressed,” says Jean-Robert de Cavel of Jean-Robert’s Table in Cincinnati.

Sourcing Cloth Table Linens

If you go with cloth, you have to decide whether to rent restaurant linens or buy.

“If you buy them, you have to buy a huge amount for your inventory,” de Cavel explains. And it can be hard to get an outside laundry service to launder all-natural fabrics because they’re delicate and require special detergents. That’s why some old-school high-end eateries have their own laundries on site, but that’s not feasible for most restaurateurs. “Real estate’s so expensive, most people can’t afford to have a laundromat on premises,” he chuckles.

That’s why many owners rent napkins and table skirts and covers. De Cavel keeps costs down by adding a protective layer of banquet paper to the setup. “We use paper on top of the tablecloths so we don’t have to change the linens as often. We do it every day instead of after each customer — unless there’s a big spill,” he says. Another option is putting a sheet of glass over the table cover.

“Renting from a reliable company is a great business decision,” says Christner, who leases linens for nine dining rooms at her 15,000-square-foot restaurant. “It eliminates storage needs and added costs for laundering services. We use white linens at our concept, and strive to find a brand that maintains a fresh white color instead of delivering yellow or beige tones.”

If you decide to rent, make sure you read the fine print on the contract, especially related to quality control and delivery schedules. And monitor linen delivery and inventory as carefully as you do for food items. “It’s expensive to replace damaged or lost linens, and if you run out, you have to wait for the supplier to deliver more,” Christner notes.

Margot Carmichael Lester is a freelance journalist and the owner of The Word Factory, a creative agency in Carrboro, NC. Raised in her parents’ gourmet grocery, she’s written about food, beverages and the restaurant business for several in-flight magazines, Playboy, and Follow Margot on Google+.

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