Not too uniform


What do you want your waiter to wear? A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

One decision faces every restaurateur months before opening wherever they are in the world, one that demands that the restaurateur assumes the skills of a psychologist, an inspiring manager and, to some extent, even that of a visionary. But despite its importance, once made and the restaurant is open, this decision is quickly forgotten.

What do you want your waiting staff to wear? Will it be formal, with the junior waiters in white shirts and black trousers and their superiors in clearly distinctive jackets? Or will you choose the opposite route and let your waiting staff express themselves by wearing their own clothes, those that they feel most comfortable in?

The biggest determining factor is the restaurant’s location. A principle for a successful restaurant anywhere is that what is inside the front door matches what is outside. If in London you are in Mayfair, St James’s or Knightsbridge, the probability is that your staff will have to dress more formally than if your restaurant is in Hoxton, Haggerston or Hackney. But as with all generalisations there are exceptions – witness the success of Fallow on the Haymarket where the waiting staff wear their own clothes.

The notion of encouraging your waiting staff to feel as comfortable as possible by allowing them to wear what they like at work was outlined by Chris Ammermann, one of the founders of Caravan restaurants (where our tasting events have been held). ‘From the moment we opened the first Caravan in 2010, we realised that our staff are our biggest asset and we’ve been fortunate to work with so many great people over the years. We always wanted our teams to be able to express themselves and believe they should wear what they feel comfortable and confident in and not be shackled by a uniform. How can you say to someone, be the best you can be today and then make them put on a uniform to look like everyone else? We don’t promote branded clothing and we don’t like singlets because no one wants an armpit in their face. But apart from that, our instructions to our waiting staff are “be yourself and have fun”.’

Whichever choice is made, there will always need to be an enforcer, someone who regulates the ‘uniforms’ and the hygiene standards of the waiting staff. This is a sensitive role and one that is equally important, whichever option is chosen.

Willoughby Andrews-King, operations director of the small group of Vinoteca restaurants, made reference to this vital role when sending me a copy of their guidelines on dress code and grooming’. ‘Vinoteca is not a fine-dining restaurant but equally we’re not a street van. This means no casual trainers, no scruffy jeans, nothing old or untidy.’ There is a further paragraph on jewellery and make-up, ending with the warning that ‘the manager will ask you to change anything they feel is inappropriate’.

Their policy has been helped by the fact they have adopted the increasingly common practice among restaurants over the past decade of long aprons for their waiting staff, a custom borrowed from the kitchen or the wine cellar, with the growing emphasis on selling wine, and from the Paris bistros of yore. These simple, easily branded, additions can hide a multitude of sins and have the additional benefit of pockets for corkscrews, order pads and pens. Andrews-King continued, ‘It’s almost ritualistic, ie you own that apron and you take care of it, when you hang it round your neck you get into character and you are “on stage”.’

However, François O’Neill, the owner of Maison François in St James’s, believes that his waiting staff’s suits, designed by The Deck (women) and Drake’s (men), reflect his ambitions. ‘When paired with Veja trainers and a simple white T-shirt, this is a combination that makes them elegant but also comfortable for working in for a long shift, which will always lead to happier staff. We are very detail-orientated and for us staff uniforms are a key detail that stands to influence our customers’ experience in the restaurant and are therefore worth the investment and the time and energy of sourcing.’

One company that firmly believes in dressing its staff in uniforms is D&D Restaurants, which operates 33 restaurants in the UK, including Angler and Skylon in London and Angelica in Leeds. Their operations director, Michael Farquhar, was adamant about the advantages a staff uniform brings despite the extra costs involved (a manager’s suit can cost over £200 and on average the company spends £15,000 on uniforms per opening), this on top of the extra space required for staff changing rooms.

‘We believe that a staff uniform contributes to the creation of a common goal that is bigger than just yourself. It makes everybody feel equal and I believe sends out a signal to the customer that everything is under control in the way that we set the tables out with the glasses and the cutlery lined up.’

Farquhar ended by asking me whether I believed that the current fashion for waiters’ aprons may one day soon become unfashionable. This sentiment chimed with a comment from David Loewi, D&D’s managing director, that, ‘the world is moving away from uniforms to one that is dominated by style guides’.

I agree, and in an era when waiting staff are difficult to find, those restaurateurs who lay down the fewest conditions will benefit.

Image by Mohamed Nohassi via Unsplash.