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Stretching the employee dress code

Restaurant uniforms are often straightforward and pre-packaged, a triumph of function over fashion. Durability and a low cost often trump appearance and comfort. But operators breaking the conventions are finding creative and unconventional staff attire to be a relatively easy way of bolstering employee engagement and enhancing a brand’s image and customer appeal.

The &pizza fast-casual pizza chain approaches staff apparel as if it was a fashion house’s latest collection. Michael Lastoria, CEO and founder, creates spring/summer and fall/winter collections of custom-designed, branded t-shirts, sweatshirts, beanies, and accessories for employees, a.k.a. “tribe members.” In addition, each store has its own cap, embroidered with the street letter of the shop.

Knowing uniforms are often a low priority for established brands, Lastoria spent time considering on the nuances for his upstart. He was unable to find material and cuts he felt echoed the brand, prompting him to create custom patterns and strive for a fashion-forward concept.

“Given that we are an urban-first brand, we wanted our apparel to look and feel very urban, very modern,” he said.

But practicality was also an issue. “We wanted our tribe members to feel incredibly comfortable wearing our apparel,” commented Lastoria.

He adds that individuality is celebrated at &pizza. It is commonplace to see large earrings, tattoos, and bright colored hair paired with the black work shirt sporting a giant ampersand.

“That’s where it gets fun,” he says. “Our tribe feels more comfortable because they’re not wearing something that someone else is making them wear. They are wearing something they would choose to wear themselves. And that confidence helps them connect with our guests at a much deeper level.” 

At the Surf Lodge in Montauk, N.Y., fashionable uniforms catapulted the beach hotel and restaurant into headlines. This June, the Lodge hosted an unveiling party with celebrities and media well in attendance of switching to uniforms designed in collaboration with popular fashion label Zimmermann. Owner Jayma Cardosa says the getaway spot for New Yorkers recreates its uniforms yearly to bring new energy to the Surf Lodge.

“We don’t really think of it as uniforms, just functional beach wear,” Jayma says.  “Having a fresh look for each summer provides a little boost. No matter what, I can’t tell you how many of our employees are asked about who the designer is, and that they love what they are wearing.”

Similarly at Flowerchild and Culinary Dropout, concepts of Fox Restaurants, uniforms—or lack thereof—are pivotal parts of the restaurants’ energy. At Flowerchild, male employees wear Chambray shirts and women wear free-flowing blouses. Everyone is encouraged to heavily accessorize with flowers, bracelets, and jewelry.

Culinary Dropout is a restaurant with no fashion rules; there is no dress code.

“When you’re developing a brand that has a sense of freedom or personal expression, every touch point is so important,” says Anita Walker, vice president of marketing at Fox Restaurants. “Allowing our staff to really express that in how they dress and be who they are is great in really solidifying the brands and what they mean.”

Culinary Dropout also uses their “anything goes” dress code as a social media marketing tool. On their Instagram account, one post highlights an employee outfit of the day while another invites those with tattoos and piercings to become a “dropout”.

Walker says the outfits help young guests identify with employees, and older guests who appreciate the employee enthusiasm.

“Today there are so many amazing restaurants and such great food. It’s really competitive,” she notes. “That extra thing that can create loyalty and interest from friends, neighbors, and guests is really coveted. You can really add a lot of equity to your brand by allowing more freedom and personal touch on your uniforms.”

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