In the months before a new opening, a restaurateur faces many decisions, from light fittings and menus to the hiring of key staff. One choice in particular involves psychology, inspiration and vision, yet is often swiftly forgotten once the restaurant opens.
The question is this: 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 staff express themselves by wearing their own clothes?
The biggest determining factor is location.
One principle for a successful restaurant anywhere is that what is inside the front door should match what is outside. If your restaurant is in Mayfair, St James’s or Knightsbridge, your staff will probably have to dress more formally than if it were in Hoxton, Haggerston or Hackney. But there are notable exceptions: witness the success of Fallow in St James’s, where the waiting staff wear their own outfits.
Like the staff in many post-pandemic workplaces, waiters are dressing more casually overall. The importance of your waiters feeling as comfortable as possible was outlined to me by Chris Ammermann, co-founder of Caravan restaurants in London. “From the moment we opened the first Caravan in 2010, we realised our staff were our biggest asset. We always wanted our teams to be able to express themselves and believed 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.’”
Whatever decision is made, there will always need to be an enforcer, someone who regulates the “uniforms” as well as the hygiene standards of the waiting staff. Naturally, this is a sensitive role.
Willoughby Andrews-King, operations director for the Vinoteca group of wine bars, alluded to this when sending me a copy of its 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,” they say. 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”.
As is fashionable, Vinoteca has adopted long aprons for its waiting staff, a look borrowed from the kitchen or wine cellar, and from the Paris bistros of yore. These simple, easily branded garments can hide a multitude of sins and have the additional benefit of pockets for corkscrews, order pads and pens. “It’s almost ritualistic,” says Andrews-King. “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, owner of Maison François in St James’s, believes 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, which will always lead to happier staff. We are very detail-oriented and, for us, staff uniforms are a key detail that stands to influence our customers’ experience . . . and are therefore worth the investment and time and energy of sourcing.”
One company that firmly believes in dressing its staff in uniforms is D&D London, which has more than 30 restaurants in the UK, including Angler and Skylon in London and Angelica in Leeds. Operations director Michael Farquhar is adamant about the advantages of staff uniforms, despite the extra costs involved (a manager’s suit can cost more than £200 and on average the company spends £15,000 on uniforms per opening). “We believe a staff uniform contributes to the creation of a common goal that is bigger than just yourself,” he says. “It makes everybody feel equal and, I believe, sends out a signal to the customer that everything is under control.”
For all that, David Loewi, D&D’s managing director, argues 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, restaurateurs who lay down the fewest conditions will benefit.
More articles from Nicholas at ft.com/lander
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