Taken to the cleaners

That linen service is costing you a lot more these days, isn’t it? You’re not alone: as the price of gas rises, so does the cost of laundry. But some operators are fighting back. Call him the traffic cop of tablecloths. At every managers meeting at Atlanta’s Rainwater restaurant, general manager Jim Carter talks about linen. It already costs him $2,000 a month—an increase of $200 over last year—and he wants to keep that number from rising any further.

Each night, his staff counts out the tablecloths for his five dining rooms and 200-seat ballroom. Because the tables are cushioned with foam tops, they require only one cloth instead of two. When waiters push three tables together, they join the cloths with a French fold, using three sheets instead of five. In the kitchen, each cook is issued two towels a shift, no more of this using a new towel every time you wipe up a spill.

“Our goal is to be out of linen the night before the next delivery,” Carter says. “If we find we have extras, I need to know why that happens.”

In years past, you could have written Carter off as a fabric fanatic. Not today. There’s a creeping crisis in table linens. White tablecloths, along with cloth napkins and towels, are becoming increasingly expensive status symbols, as energy prices raise the cost of laundry services. In response, some fine-dining operators are finding creative ways to conserve their coverings. Others are pulling off the cloths and experimenting with other decorating schemes to lend their tabletops a touch of class.

Last year, the cost of linen service rose an average 15 percent nationally, according to the Textile Rental Services Association of America. As for this year, “Oh, my God, it will be higher,” says association president Roger Cocivera. His members are facing a financial perfect storm. They use vast quantities of natural gas, municipal water and gasoline, and all three are spiking at the same time.

Firms in the $13 billion rental linen industry (half its volume is from restaurants) say they’ve done their part to hold down costs. For the past decade, their prices have gone up less than the Consumer Price Index. That’s because they’ve invested millions in machines that save energy, labor and water. “It used to be, to wash a pound of light-soiled linen would take one and a half to two gallons of water,” says Cocivera. “Our industry got it down to under a gallon.”

But over the past year, linen providers have begun tacking on energy surcharges. That’s been a wake-up call for restaurateurs like Carter. In six months, he’s cut his linen expenses from 2 percent of sales down to 1.25 percent with policies like reusing the hot towels that servers use to carry plates out to diners. His dining room includes seven booths that don’t have tablecloths, and he tries to turn them twice as much as the other tables.

Consultant Izzy Kharasch of Hospitality Works in Deerfield, Illinois, agrees that if linen runs 2 percent of sales, someone is wasting it. He cites one client that slashed its annual outlay from $22,000 to $13,000. The trick was to make one manager a linen czar and pay him a percentage of whatever he saved. He earned a $1,500 bonus.

“He limited access,” says Kharasch. “When you have an unlimited supply, you use a ton. He issued out linen on a daily basis, based on how many people were coming in. He added more linen bags in different areas so they would not just get thrown on the floor. He bought containers for servers to pre-fold napkins, so that if something spilled on them, they would not lose a bunch. They could hold 200 napkins per container, seal them up and put them out of the way.”

Many linen providers are happy to help restaurants identify waste. Morgan Services of Chicago offers seminars to its clients, says CEO Richard Senior. “We’ve got Spanish-speaking people who can go out and talk to our customers’ employees in their own language about the consequences of handling linen in an inappropriate manner.”

A common target is the trashcan. “I have a customer who was losing a lot of linen,” says a New England rental executive.

“They got billed for lost or damaged linen. I had some of my managers go in their dumpster, rummage through and pull napkins out.”

Not every high-end operator is cutting back on linens. At La Strada Ristorante in Chicago, owner Michael Mormando prefers to pass his extra costs on to customers. He’s raising prices, but not on his menu. “It might be a difference of a setup fee for an event,” he says, “or upcharges on valet parking. Typically, you don’t wish to raise a la carte prices.”

One operator, with a large catering business as well as a restaurant, has economized by starting his own laundry. Barton G in Miami Beach spent $200,000 on machines that wash hundred-pound loads and presses with nine-foot rollers. Owner Barton Weiss says he saves 30 percent and gets higher quality. “A lot of commercial laundries can’t get out lipstick, red wine or berries. We get uniform, crisp linens with creases in the same spot.”

While some high-end restaurants get thrifty with their linens, others are deciding they don’t need them at all. It’s a trend New York chef Scott Campbell calls “the casualization of fine dining.”

“Tablecloths are like the horse-and-buggy era,” says Campbell. At his @SQC Restaurant Bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the only tablecloth is one that’s framed on the wall. He spattered it with paint to resemble a faux Jackson Pollock. He took the others out when business slowed down, after 9/11. To let customers know they didn’t need suits and ties, he brought in 50 custom tables of dark maple and shined them with bowling lane wax. He spent $10,000, but he figures he saves $55,000 a year on linen service.

At Maya, a high-end Mexican restaurant in New York, owner Richard Sandoval ditched some tablecloths when he added some lower-priced entrees. “We wanted to make it more approachable,” he says. He bought tables with dark hardwood tops, at $400 a crack, and spruced them up with woven placemats and steel vases. So far, he’s lowered his linen charges $10,000 a year and is thinking about removing the rest.

In Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, John Pontius is remodeling Finely JP’s. He’s decided to complement his seafood menu with larger, butcher-block tables, eliminating $5,000 on laundry service. “I’ll make it look a little more casual,” he says. “Because it’s a summer seasonal place, I get people who come in all dressed up and others in shorts and sandals.”

Naked tabletops aren’t the only alternative to starched ones. At Biggs in Long Beach, California, Bret Wilke covers his tables with a waffle-patterned packing paper, pre-cut to fit. It complements his hip, urban look. Because his tapas-style menu encourages diners to share food, the paper’s also good for soaking up spills. A week’s worth runs him $1,100, but he figures it’s cheaper than cloth. “People love it because it has a texture, like fabric,” says Wilke. “It’s super-easy to change. You just roll it up and throw it in the trash.”

What lies ahead for linen? Look for restaurants to use less and less, says Kharasch, as prices inch up each year. Even operators who keep tablecloths at night may do away with them at lunch or discontinue linen napkins. But don’t expect white tablecloths to disappear. Many fancy dining rooms will always feel there’s no substitute for fine fabrics, at any price. At Tony’s di Napoli, on Second Street in New York, manager Jesse Feldman says, “In the scope of our business, it’s certainly a cost item, but I’m not seeing any untoward charges we can’t live with. Our business dictates we need it.”     

How to Keep Linen Costs Low

• Set a linen expense target of less than 1.5 percent of sales.
• Put one person in charge of conserving linens—and cut them in on the savings.
• Count out linens at the start of a shift and keep the rest locked up.
• Check your trash to make sure no linen is thrown out.
• Scatter more laundry bins around, so less linen gets thrown on the floor or in the trash.
• Use a softer tabletop that needs only one tablecloth instead of two.
• Store napkins in spill-proof containers.
• Buy higher-end tables and set them without tablecloths.
• Ask if your linen supplier can train your employees.

Life After Linens
Ideas from restaurants that kicked the white-tablecloth habit.

New York City
The high-end Mexican restaurant replaced old tables/tablecloths with new tables with dark hardwood tops—and woven placemats.

Long Beach, California
This Italian high-end
casual restaurant replaced tablecloths with pre-cut waffle-patterned packing paper.

New York City
A contemporary American restaurant, it replaced
tablecloths with dark brown maple tabletops, which are waxed once a week with bowling lane wax.

Finely JP’s
Wellfleet, Massachusetts
This casual fine-dining operation replaced tablecloths with red butcher-block tables.

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