Like almost everything else in Boston’s trendy Fort Point neighborhood, Todd Winer was ahead of the curve when it came to the ubiquitous blue and white checked shirt with jeans that his Pastoral servers wear. But what happens when a classic becomes a little too popular?
“We found that a lot of customers were coming in and being confused with our wait staff,” he said. “It’s a clean, casual, but preppy, look that suits a lot of people and body shapes, but we had to retire it because four other restaurants in our neighborhood started to wear it.”
Pastoral staff made the switch to dark jeans, earth-toned shoes, and black or charcoal-colored long- or short-sleeve Henley tops. “Everyone’s got a different body type,” says Winer, “so when someone is comfortable, it shows. Plus, it’s affordable since we don’t require one brand.”
Fashion may not be the first thing that comes to mind when running a restaurant, but front-of-house and back-of-house staff alike need to make sure their clothes send a positive message about the brand, while functioning well enough to get them through a long shift.
Winer learned that lesson when he opened Pastoral in 2014 with a staff that was required to wear long, white bistro aprons. “I love that look but everyone was like, ‘We’re getting filthy—we’re covered in chili oil and pen and it’s heavy and hot,’” he says. Today’s half-aprons are a friendlier temperature and more of a clay tone to accommodate for pizza sauce splatter and the occasional flour mishap.
To really make sure your restaurant uniforms combine fashion and function, trust a former chef.
‘You can still have five-star service while being low-key and hospitable.’ – Pastoral’s Todd Winer
After years spent in the kitchen, Erik Desjarlais is now putting his hands to use in a different way as the owner of Maine-based Weft & Warp Seamsters. Although Portland is one of the Northeast’s top foodie cities, his utilitarian custom wax and leather aprons are being used as far as Toro in New York City and Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.
“I still have trouble associating the culinary world with fashion—it doesn’t matter how you look, it’s how you cook,” he says.
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But facing what he called a lack of affordable and practical options, Desjarlais is outfitting both front- and back-of-house employees in a few ways. “With apron sales especially, I think it’s smart for restaurants to take advantage of wholesale pricing. Aprons that are given to employees have the tendency to grow legs and walk away, and due to a lot of high turnover in the industry, I can make an order of 60 for a new restaurant and within two months, they’ve lost a bunch.” While it takes him the same amount of time to handcraft each, restaurants can save by ordering a high-profile item in advance and in bulk.
Desjarlais says he always considers comfort before aesthetics, and as someone who once spent up to 16 hours on his feet, chooses fabrics that breathe well and allow movement. “Martha Stewart isn’t knocking down my door because my new line of aprons are the same shade as her peonies. … But with social media being the driving force now, the flavor and quality of food can sometimes take a backseat to how it looks. I always choose function first.”
The aesthetic is pretty cool, too, though, and Desjarlais puts his stamp on a line that’s like a cross between Madewell for cooks with L.L. Bean-like flair. (His storefront is also in Freeport, and floor cloths are cut from sailboat canvas.)
While his knife rolls are an industry hit (Matt Jennings of Boston’s Townsman is a huge fan), demand for apparel has Desjarlais looking to expand upon new apron lines to add a “utilitarian but cool chef shirt” and a line of industrial-duty bags and accessories for the avid home chef.
Camera-ready kitchen apparel is already a point of pride for Cayson Designs out of San Francisco, where president Karie La Mountain favors budget-friendly poly/cotton blends for chefs coats, cook shirts and aprons. “You can just have a few, fun, custom aprons for special events, but your classic daily apron should still be high-quality, since it’s like the old friend you depend on,” she says. Investing in better quality now, including pieces that launder more easily, means fewer costs in the long run.
Restaurant layout trends also contribute to Cayson—which offers styles friendly for male and female body shapes—seeing an increase in orders. “The open-kitchen concept is definitely a contributor for chefs wanting and needing a polished presentation,” La Mountain says. Among her clients is chef Kyle Connaughton of Single Thread Farm in Healdsburg, California, who says the myriad styles are all “simple and elegant and mesh with our open-kitchen environment. … We needed a chef coat that’s both comfortable and has a modern look.”
Tips from the Pros on Outfitting Your Staff in Style
- Stay on brand. Joey Acari, owner of Boston’s Punk & Poet, wants employees to promote the pub’s brand that celebrates Bohemian musical and literary culture by wearing their own flannel shirts and concert tees. “You’ll see our staff wearing shirts from great classic punk bands like the Ramones and the Clash, but that’s how they’d be dressing anyway. That’s why they’re working at Punk & Poet—they feel at home,” he says.
- Don’t get too casual. “I went to L.A. recently and they were wearing random t-shirts—these were really expensive restaurants,” says Pastoral’s Winer. “I think the vibe needs to match the price point a little bit, but you can still have five-star service while being low-key and hospitable.”
- Be budget-friendly. “Keeping it more practical is something your staff will appreciate,” says Winer. “Turquoise Pumas and high-fashion shirts are expensive and not something they’re likely to use again.”
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