What your staff wear says a lot about your business. Angela Tufvesson reveals the benefits of restaurant uniforms
There’s a lot more to restaurant uniforms than functionality. Gone are the days of starched white shirts and long aprons. These days, restaurant staff sport everything from skinny jeans and t-shirts to upmarket vest-and-tie combos and elaborate ensembles that work with a particular theme.
So, why go to all that effort? Whether you’re running a casual eatery or fine dining hot spot, uniforms are a key part of your brand that show customers what your restaurant is all about. And, just as importantly, dressing the part helps your staff to act the part.
In much the same way as your outdoor signage, menus and interior fit-out set the tone of your dining experience, staff uniforms are an important element of restaurant branding.
“A uniform is a touch point in the same way you answer the phone or the way you lay out your menu. These are the touch points the customer experiences with a restaurant,” says Joshua Strawczynski, marketing manager of hospitality consultancy MyGuestlist.
Pam Burnett of uniform manufacturer Cream Workwear agrees, explaining that what your staff wear tells the story of your dining experience. “When a customer walks into your restaurant, what story are you telling your customer? What sort of experience are you giving your customer? You tell a story by your interior, the food you serve and likewise with what your staff are wearing. It’s about storytelling—the restaurant floor is your theatre.”
At Cuckoo Restaurant in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges, staff wear traditional German outfits in keeping with the Bavarian chalet theme. Food and beverage manager Bill Inglis says the uniforms have been so successful that they’ve remained virtually unchanged since the restaurant opened in 1958.
“Staff uniforms are an integral part of the atmosphere in the restaurant and the branding,” he says. “It’s probably at least 50 per cent of the atmosphere—the rest is the way the building looks, the way the tables are laid out and what the band plays. Our customers say the place is complete because of the uniforms. They say they could be in the alps in Germany or Switzerland.”
The key, according to Strawczynski, is customising staff uniforms to appeal to your target market. And that may mean employing dress guidelines rather than a strict uniform. “The guy who runs the pub, for instance, might want it to feel like a local where the staff dress like the customers,” he says. “Conversely, the fancy steak restaurant next door might dress their waiters in tuxedos because they want to be that top venue.”
“To dress the part you become the part, and that gives you a certain confidence and attitude to your work.” Bill Inglis, Cuckoo Restaurant, VIC
The degree of uniformity also depends on the restaurant style. “If you want to be cheap and cheerful, perhaps staff wear jeans and a t-shirt, but if you want to be more upmarket and charge higher prices and be perceived as experts in food, then you need a unified look and feel,” says Strawczynski.
Ultimately, staff uniforms help invoke a sense of consistency that tells your customers that they can expect the same experience each time they dine at your restaurant. This is a powerful concept because our minds favour the efficiency of consistent experiences over thinking about each of our actions and experiences.
“Consumer behaviour and buyer behaviour is very much about consistency of experience,” says Strawczynski. “We love to experience the same thing over and over. A uniform is one touch point along the line of that consistent experience, both from the way that staff deliver those values and the way that consumers perceive those values as they interact with them.”
Act the part
At the other end of the uniform spectrum, consistent dress can aid staff performance and improve morale. “Wearing a uniform makes you feel part of the team, like you have a purpose, and you feel like you’re there to do a job,” says Burnett. “If we have something new and smart, we want to wear it and we feel good in it.”
Strawczynski agrees: “In terms of morale and sharing organisational values, it’s a way to bring everyone together. If everyone dresses the same, psychologically it’s saying we’re all the same and are working to the same end.”
What’s more, an emerging body of research called ‘enclothed cognition’ suggests that the clothes we wear influence how we feel and behave—as well as how others perceive us. In a landmark study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers found that clothes can put the wearer into a different psychological state, which affects how we feel and act.
Study participants who wore a white coat that they believed belonged to a doctor performed better on an attention test than participants who believed the coat belonged to a painter, and participants who simply saw—rather than wore—a white coat while completing the test.
The researchers concluded that donning the signature garment of a profession known to be careful and attentive has a rub-off effect on the wearer. In essence, the phenomenon involves two equally important factors: the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them. Ergo, if your staff put on uniforms that are consistent with your branding, they’re more likely to treat customers in a way that’s consistent with your branding.
Inglis says the uniforms at Cuckoo Restaurant help staff to embody its Bavarian theme. “To dress the part you become the part, and that gives you a certain confidence and attitude to your work,” he says.
Choosing your uniform
When it comes to choosing or updating your uniform, Burnett says incorporating a denim element—e.g., denim aprons worn over t-shirts in a cafe setting—are especially popular.
Sustainably sourced materials, such as organic cotton, are also trending at the moment. “As chefs focus more on where their produce comes from, sustainable farming practices and how this affects health and livelihood, it seems natural that this ethos should follow through into what they wear,” says Burnett.
And even as trends change and manufacturing technology improves, Burnett says materials that look good for an entire shift and launder easily are still the most practical. “People often want linens because they look nice, but they don’t work well because they absorb oils and crease terribly,” she says. “Organic cotton is better. We encourage people to go for organic cottons with eco-friendly finishes.”