As we head into the second quarter, there continues to be a number of key issues impacting the use of textiles in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic restaurant and hospitality community.
At the top of that list are certainly the tensions that increased tariffs and a trade dispute with China have had on the textile marketplace. But even more basic is following the on-going uniform and linen trends of how a “business casual” society has had the customer experience that dining patrons are having.
So Total Food Service sought out one of the foremost experts on the subject: Mark Lewis, Corporate Sales manager of Dempsey Uniform & Linen Supply, to get his thoughts and help our readers create a uniform and linen strategy for the next year.
Talk about your career path prior to joining Dempsey.
I worked with G&K Service for 5 years and rose up in the company to be the general manager of their Southern California and Nevada market operations. I am a Southern California guy with a short stint in Wyoming. While out west, I met the Dempsey team through a mutual contact. Eighteen years ago, I joined Dempsey and that brought me to the East Coast, where I have been ever since.
As we start a new year, what are some of the trends in uniforms that you saw last year?
The industry standard has become a 65/35 polyester blend or 100% poly. Over the past couple of years, we are seeing much more of the 100% poly. This is only because it holds up and cleans better in the laundering process. With that has come a move away from white to darker colors. Black is great way to go because it hides stains that of course happen both in the kitchen and in the dining room. It has also more popular because many of the fabrics are cooler. Mesh back chef coats for instance are now at the top of everybody’s list.
We are also seeing short sleeves replacing the traditional rolled up sleeve because it’s a better look and far more comfortable. It’s very popular in New York City. If I had to make one suggestion for a culinary team, it would be a short-sleeved mesh jacket. It’s comfortable and you don’t need to worry about fading.
What types of fabrics are you seeing in the hospitality marketplace?
Most garments come from outside the country some are sewn in the US, but the majority are from overseas. There are large manufacturers like DFN, Vanity Fair and Regent. There has also been tremendous growth on the e-commerce side. You need to keep in mind that with a lot of product made with 100% cotton, it simply won’t stand up to the demands of a commercial laundry program. We have clients that buy 100% cotton, and we will launder it but with the understanding that it will have a limited shelf life.
What advice do you have for a restaurant to tie their laundry program into their green or sustainable agenda?
Just reusing and washing really makes a uniform green. I had the opportunity to serve as Chairman of the TRSA task force that created the clean and green certification for the industry. As a result of that Dempsey was able to be the very first clean/green certified laundry in the world. Europe is now in the process of adopting these standards that we created after going through ASTM and being labeled as the standard of sustainable laundry. Keep in mind that a commercial laundry can use a single gallon of water or less. Meanwhile someone washing their uniform at home can use 4 gallons or more. Quite a difference! In fact there is actually a program through the Green Restaurant Association that enables restaurants to earn points towards their certification overtime if they wash with us.
We’ve focused on laundering, are there any fabrics that offer a green option?
At this point, there is some recycled plastic being used in the actual garment. But at this point it is really about the choice of a laundry that has a green program.
How does a crisp well-designed uniform make wait staff feel better about themselves and bring that to the dining patron?
Anytime someone looks good, it is only natural that they are going to feel good about themselves. That will always trend towards the right attitude. This helps elevate the level of service that a customer expects and sends the right message.
In your years in the business, you’ve seen kitchens get smaller because of the value of real estate. How has that impacted the traditional ‘Chef’s whites’?
How that ends up playing out is that we have to make more deliveries in a week. As a result of limited space, a restaurant in Manhattan may end you with three to five deliveries a week. So, the cramped space we find in New York City has an impact on the cost to our restaurant customers. Our customer base in Baltimore and Philadelphia may only require one delivery a week because they have the space.
From a P&L standpoint, how does the rental model compare with buying cheaper commodities and then just replacing?
You need to look at each of the categories to get to the right answer. Let’s look at napkins. You can buy a linen-like paper napkin in which a customer will end up using more than one versus a linen napkin that will last through the entire dining experience. Look at any of the TSRA research and then look at the obvious environmental issues. Clearly a linen napkin is a better choice for the operator and the environment. There’s no question that a product like a glove can be purchased from a Restaurant Depot at a reduced price. But when it comes to the rental and reusable product, we represent a better choice from both a cost and green/sustainable standpoint.
There’s been an on-going battle over the future of table linens.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak to many restaurant owners throughout the years about why they do or don’t utilize table linens. It comes down to a desire to be formal or some hybrid of formal and casual. It starts with them looking at the tables they have and in many cases, that’s the starting point. Do I need to cover this table vs. do I want to cover this table to create a look and be able to price my menu at a particular price point? One of the keys is helping our customers understand that a white tablecloth doesn’t send a message that that this meal is going to be expensive. Another concern that has come with a bare table is how do we sanitize and keep these tables clean.
How have tariffs impacted the use of domestic goods vs “Italian made” uniforms?
Not really. We do a little bit of importing from Italy. The real issue isn’t tariffs. It’s the time that it takes to source and then get the product to the US. It can take several months from concept to the operator being able to put it on a table. So, our preference is to be able to work with our sources that can turn a concept into reality within a matter of days.
Is there a table linen equivalent of the new business casual?
It’s interesting we are starting to see the return of the placemat. They have been around but now we are starting to see some creative uses. It’s still early, let’s not confuse the issue. The white tablecloth and fine dining is very much alive and well in Metro New York.
What impact has buying uniforms and table linens/napkins online had on the marketplace?
People don’t buy table linens online because they simply can’t without a major investment in equipment launder it properly. We’ve seen it happen and it lasts for a very short time. With today’s modern fabrics, without proper wash chemistry, they simply can’t get it right. On the uniform side, those who have brought through e-commerce and have their employees wash their own uniforms find great inconsistencies. Let’s face it, a chef who just worked a long shift is not going to take his coat to a dry cleaner and have it pressed.
To learn about restaurant and hospitality uniform and linen trends and more, visit the Dempsey website.