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Hardly uniform

Fresh thinking about restaurant attire.

Attendees at the NRA Show this month in Chicago who are shopping uniform trends are sure to be blinded by color (from deep purple to bright orange) and buzzing about wearable technology (chef coats with ports for ear buds, smartphone holders and tablet-size pockets). Also on display will be more fashion-forward and comfortable styles for servers at both the QSR and casual level. According to the National Restaurant Association, the look of a uniform can play a key role in staff pride and performance, and more restaurant concepts are seeking employee input.

Traditional or non?

At the casual Quartino Ristorante and Wine Bar in Chicago, the waitstaff now sports soccer jerseys, jeans and athletic shoes, a switch made about a year ago. “The jerseys were part of our original DNA but somehow we ended up with white baker’s shirts with the Quartino logo,” says Chef-partner John Coletta. “The staff wasn’t happy with those uniforms, and when we looked back at our original mission statement to check progress, we revisited the jerseys. We received incredibly positive support from the staff.”

Male and female servers can now choose from several team jerseys or support their favorite teams. “Response from the Italian community, European and American visitors and local customers continues to be strong, creating dialogue and rapport with the staff and building good word of mouth,” says Coletta.

A uniform that reinforces your concept attracts customers, as Quartino discovered. At Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy’s, a recent brand refresh included the overhaul of employee uniforms to fit with its new image. The burger chain’s new custom-designed  uniforms are in sync with Wendy’s move toward bolder restaurant design, higher-quality ingredients and a more innovative menu. The on-trend styling of the new red and black camp shirts conveys a fresher, younger, more energetic look. And employees can mix and match pieces for more individuality. 

Chefs speak up

The back of house seems divided on whether or not to chuck tradition. Executive Chef Chris Lobkovich of the 80-seat Bookstore Bar & Café in Seattle’s Alexis Hotel comes down on the side of convention. “I like to wear a standard chef uniform to honor the tradition of being a chef. Not to mention it’s an incredibly practical piece of clothing,” he says. Lobkovich terms the uniforms for his staff “pretty traditional,” but does allow for flexibility. “Guys can wear any pant they like and a chef coat or dishwasher shirt of their choosing. We all wear chalk-striped butcher aprons,” he says. Polished-looking employees reinforce the image of this polished casual restaurant, yet Chef Lobkovich finds that it raises employee morale and retention to give cooks a choice.

Marjorie Meek-Bradley, executive chef of the 122-seat Ripple and the 180-seat Roofers Union in Washington, D.C., is moving away from chef coats because the sizing is always off. “A lot of times I’ll wear a medium in a guy’s chef coat and I’ll need an extra-large in a girl’s coat … and it still doesn’t fit fantastically,” she says. At Roofers Union, chef coats for the cooks have been discarded in favor of the dishwasher’s shirt. The white button-downs are more casual, not as formal-looking, says Meek-Bradley.

The trend away from chef coats also may be generational. Meek-Bradley noticed a change when she participated in this year’s Cochon 555 culinary competition in Washington, D.C. “Last year, the event included more mature chefs; this year the organizers went with an up-and-coming group. In last year’s photo, everybody was wearing a chef coat except one participant. This year, nobody was.” 

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