KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Celebrated chef Patrick Ryan once walked away from a chef's position at a top Chicago hotel, mostly because he couldn't stand the uniform he had to wear 50 to 90 hours a week.
So when Ryan was planning his Port Fonda restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., uniforms weren't an afterthought. They were carefully considered — for employee comfort and for furthering the Port Fonda brand. His workers now wear designer jeans, shirts and hats by Kansas City's nationally known Baldwin Denim.
At $200 to $300, Port Fonda's uniforms are among the most expensive and stylish restaurant uniforms in the nation.
“We were taking a 'bigger city' approach, not only with the food and drink but with the design, the atmosphere, the music and what the staff were going to be wearing,” Ryan said. “We wanted a relaxed vibe, not stuffy. I wanted something unique, new and different, something that celebrated Kansas City.”
And “uniform” probably isn't the word that comes to mind when looking at the staff, because their clothes are more like mix-and-match ensembles.
Nearly one in 10 workers, or $13.1 million people, is employed in the restaurant industry, and for most that means some type of uniform — same outfit, day in, day out.
Customers might not take much notice of their server's apparel, until they need something and have to scan the restaurant searching for help. Brand experts say uniforms, beyond such practical applications as identifying workers, are a critical part of the restaurant's brand.
Indeed. Organizations as diverse as Playboy and the San Francisco 49ers take uniforms so seriously they have registered them with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.
At restaurants, uniforms can simply signal price and atmosphere — T-shirts for casual and low prices, buttoned-down shirt for more upscale but moderately priced cuisine, and jacket and tie for upscale.
Whether it's a conservative country club or modern cutting-edge restaurant, a comfortable, stylish uniform can help recruit and retain workers, experts said. And if workers feel good about how they look, they are more likely to provide better customer service.
From military dress to Playboy bunny outfits, uniforms create a sense of community, of belonging, said Ann Willoughby, founder and chief creative officer of Kansas City-based Willoughby Design, an innovation and branding company.
“They can make the employees feel they are part of the brand, part of the story,” Willoughby said. “It identifies who they are, who works there, and signals to the public that someone is there to help them.”
Spin Neapolitan Pizza, with locations in Kansas City, has an open kitchen where cooks wear double-breasted white chef's jackets — telling customers they are about to get a “more culinary and authentic” experience, said co-owner Gail Lozoff.
Spin's servers wear black pants or jeans and a Spin T-shirt. The T-shirts are provided by the company, and the shirts change seasonally — with several color choices at a time — to freshen the look.
“The uniforms are usually worn by young people, so you want something that complements young people's bodies, not something that would look like what their mothers would wear,” Willoughby said.
At Standees, a new restaurant and movie theater complex in Prairie Village, Kan., members of the development team spent hours scrutinizing uniforms on mannequins and testing various fabrics for wearability, durability and stain resistance. They settled on several styles for the restaurant and theater employees, outfits that are comfortable in the workplace and stylish enough to wear if they want to go for a beer afterward.
Black pants are standard at Standees, but then each position has its own shirt — button-down, long-sleeved, pinstriped shirts on servers, untucked charcoal gray shirts with rolled-up sleeves for bartenders, white chef's coats for all kitchen workers, and gray Polo shirts for the theater ushers. Standees' stylized “S” logo on the front of the shirts tie them all together. Hosts wear black jackets, and hostesses wear black skirts and black tops.
“They aren't striped referee shirts or loud suspenders like in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Justin Scott, spokesman for Standees. “You don't want them so noticeable that it takes away from the food and the decor.”
Ryan of Port Fonda first planned to let his employees wear their own clothes. But that risked having them show up in something inappropriate and being sent home to change.