Dressing For Success
How FOH Uniforms Help Shape & Define the Brand
Chicago’s The Blanchard
Chicago’s most glamorous new French restaurant relishes in a modern brasserie setting, Hôtel Costes-esque soundtrack, and beautifully composed dishes and drinks. There’s a sharp contrast, however, when it comes to the uniforms on the front-of-house staff at The Blanchard.
They’re wearing dark vests over crisp, skinny jeans with long, tapered aprons pulling together the look. Jeans at a fine-dining restaurant. Only a few years ago that attire would have been frowned upon in favor of suits and svelte little black dresses, but as more establishments relax dress codes for patrons as well as offer more shared-plate options, a more casually dressed staff is the next obvious trend.
“The regimented restaurants with the regimented kitchens are going by the wayside,” observes Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. “They’re becoming fewer and fewer. Everything is going in the casual direction.”
The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist says he’s dined at more than 5,000 restaurants across the globe in his career—which was partially chronicled in the new documentary “City of Gold” by noted director Laura Gabbert. During his visits, he’s observed that aprons, which were once only worn by kitchen staff, are a big part of FOH uniforms.
“(Though they’re dressed more casual), you still want a crisp look,” says Gold. “Aprons are now at so many of the best restaurants in Los Angeles. And the idea that the servers are wearing them, as are the people doing the cooking, it now seems like more of a team.”
Custom-designed aprons with Monteverde’s logo emblazoned upon them are part of the attire at the Italian-focused hot spot in Chicago’s West Loop. But for Monteverde co-partner Meg Sahs, the strong team culture is something they push daily; the uniforms are only a small part of it and staffers are encouraged to express their individuality.
“We want our staffers to be themselves and let their personalities come through in what they wear at the restaurant,” says Sahs. “What we encourage them to do is just use their own personal style, but follow a few guidelines just to make sure that nothing is really glaringly off between their look and the restaurant’s look.”
To match the restaurant’s muted, earth tones, FOH staffers wear dark-colored jeans or pants, nonslip shoes, neutral tops and the aprons. For Sahs, this cohesion is as important as the food matching the wine selections.
“Restaurant uniforms are hugely important because they set the tone in many ways for the guest because the servers, the staff and hosts are the first human interaction guests have in restaurants,” she explains. “We want Monteverde to be casual, to be comfortable, to be a place where people just want to hang out and try a bunch of different dishes and relax.”
Kansas City's Port Fonda
Port Fonda owner/executive chef Patrick Ryan best describes his FOH staff’s uniforms as “a uniquely Midwestern American look.” Though he’s reluctant to call what they wear “uniforms” at his Kansas City, Mo.-based rustic Mexican restaurant, he says they can wear whatever they want as long as it’s from the Baldwin clothing brand.
“It allows our staff to have a cohesive look while being able to maintain their individuality,” Ryan explains. “Over time, the staff becomes a direct reflection of the business and I want them to be able to feel like they are a big part of what we do. By allowing them some freedom and creativity with the uniform it allows their personalities to become part of the overall restaurant identity.”
Ryan believes that the attire of the FOH staff plays a significant role in shaping a restaurant’s image, yet many operators ignore its importance.
“I'll never understand why (an operator) would put so much time, energy and money into developing the look and feel of the restaurant, and then have the FOH staff wear the tired ol' black and whites. The guest experience with the service staff is the first and last chance to make a good impression.”
Ryan says that larger-scale restaurants and chains should be the exception when enforcing a regimented uniform because it would get confusing if employees attempted to create their own looks. But for restaurants like Port Fonda, which on its busiest night has no more than 10 people working the front of house, it's relatively easy to maintain the standard.
“It's definitely part of the overall look, feel and vibe of the place. If our staff was dressed up in ‘uniforms’ it would look ridiculous. I think we have the best possible situation.”