Restaurant uniforms are a central part of the appearance of your restaurant. Day in and day out, customers notice how your employees are dressed and judge your restaurant based on how the uniforms correspond with their expectations. However, restaurants, no matter how similar, find themselves in different circumstances when it comes to uniforms. Each owner has to size up that situation and find the right balance. I will cover the three main considerations, so you have a map to devise an effective and appropriate uniform policy.

Before I start, you may notice that many marketing sources insist that choosing uniforms is all about branding. That is only a part of the process of selecting uniforms, although branding is a good place to start. In fact, restaurant uniforms go beyond just brand considerations as was evident in the terrible costumes (I mean, uniforms) that staff wore at fast food chains in the 70s & 80s. The restaurant job can become significantly less desirable if the staff believe they are being humiliated. Even with that, you have to have uniforms that embrace your brand while equally taking into account the consequences of different uniform options.

1. Representing Your Brand & Concept

What your front house staff wear distinguishes your restaurant nearly as much as your decor. Normally, customers do not even notice the uniforms if it meets their expectations, but even then it has a subtle effect.

Your first consideration should be actually having your staff something that enables customers to identify them. Rarely is it a good idea for your staff to wear street clothes. So under most circumstances, you want to have your employees wear clothes that separate them from customers, whether it is a black top and bottom, khakis, or white shirt with black apron. It is also very important to insist on consistency, so that everyone comes wearing the same clean uniform everyday. Otherwise the effect is lost.

But uniforms are very much about brand and sending a message to customers. Uniforms should capture the personality of your restaurant and then express it through the clothes your staff wears. However, there is a difference between caricature and personality, and you should not ignore the power of understated uniforms. You do not want to distract customers with something over-the-top, just show them that you make sure all the details fall into place and match up. Uniforms are just one more piece of the puzzle.

Obviously, you must draw upon your brand for uniform inspiration, and what the customers want to see and what they will enjoy. An upscale restaurant will normally have staff members dressed traditionally or stylishly. You will frequently encounter some servers dressed like butlers while others are just jet black and meticulously groomed. For family restaurants, your staff should be more approachable and although maybe not casual, you do not want them to outdress your customers. Fast casual and fast food have a unique uniform situation too. They have to provide branded, distinct clothes (check out McDonald’s new improved uniform) that often reflect intensive food-handling (comfortable and stain resistant) along with customer interaction. As there are innumerable brands and diverse customer demographics, you should avoid general rules and evaluate your own restaurant (look at your competitors and see what they are doing well and not doing well).

2. Earning Customer Respect

Uniforms influence the interactions between your staff and customers, contributing to whether customers see your employees as authoritative or professional.

This becomes abundantly clear when for some reason a server cannot accommodate a customer request. No one likes being told they cannot have something, but that is a part of life that inevitably comes with any dining experience. It makes this disappointment even worse if the server does not seem like they are taking you seriously. One way customers evaluate this is by how they are dressed.

Customers, and people in general, trust people who are better dressed. Little cues like a tucked in shirt or perfectly pressed pants tell customers that whoever is serving them knows what he or she is doing and is reliable. It can be the difference with more difficult customers that can be almost impossible to please. The important thing, especially in the age of Yelp, is to keep the situation under control, and a smart uniform always helps.

Servers also give off an additional confidence when they feel like they are dressed appropriately for the job. A good uniform assures an employee that they represent the restaurant and are willing to tackle problems without awkward hesitations.

Lastly, a good uniform does not humiliate your employees. I will go into this further in the morale part, but you do not want your customers to feel embarrassed for your staff. They are less likely to ask for assistance and do not necessarily feel good about your business. Customers, many who have worked at restaurants before, understand that your servers are people, and will feel insulted if you give them a uniform that makes your servers and hosts props or billboards. From my time in California, you cannot convince me that under normal circumstance a guy twirling a sign about your business or dressed up in a costume on a street corner will not do as much harm (to one’s brand) as good.

3. Keeping Employee Morale High

It is impossible for owners to observe every conversation between your employees and customers. But these conversations often determine if customers have an enjoyable experiences or horrendous ones. Uniform policy is a factor in your staff’s attitude to their job and their ability to put aside stressors and do their job with a smile.

No matter how well trained your staff is, how positive their attitude is and how careful you were in hiring the right people, staff members have bad days, just like everyone else. A bad or humiliating uniform makes matters only worse. Everyone likes looking good, while at work or at home. It is a source of self-esteem and only a very small percentage can leave that behind when they arrive at work. Normally this benefits the owner, but if you dress your employees up like clowns, they will have a chip on their shoulder. That kind of humiliation makes employees defensive. Normally there is less eye contact and shorter, more impersonal conversations with customers. They just want it to be over and go home. Think about a supermarket cashier.

Comfort and cost also come into play. Uniforms should be practical for what your staff members are expected to do. You do not want a sweaty server just as much as you expect your kitchen staff to be groomed or dressed in a way that no hair gets in the food. Discomfort is hard to disguise and it distracts workers, so you will have to find the right balance between motion and fashion. Of course, uniform cost can be an issue especially if the uniform you expect aren’t clothes that a worker would wear outside of the restaurant. If they are unique to restaurant, you should foot the bill (of course, you own the clothes and expect to have them returned). It is a guarantee that you will get off to a bad start with a new employee if you require them to pay for an expensive uniform that they have no other use for.

Rules about your uniform policy should be clearly established and enforced. The appearance rules (including grooming, piercing and tattoos) should be given to new employees in a handbook and posted so all can view them at any time. You should tell your employees what kinds of consequences they can expect if they do not follow your uniform policy. You must then follow through on those penalties fairly. Otherwise it will be much more tricky having everyone wear the right thing at the right time. It goes without saying that clothes should be clean and neat. If you have a place for your employees to change, giving them lockers may encourage fresh clothes. If you have enough room and every employee can have a locker, encourage them to store a backup set of clothes at the restaurant.

In short, giving your staff a respectable, practical uniform and an active uniform policy will make both theirs and your job easier.

Terrific uniforms do a lot for restaurants. Also, when your staff do not follow any dress code, it can have far ranging consequences to your business. During the uniform selection process, don’t be afraid to ask for help and later on, adjust the policy. The forethought and effort is worth it as finding the perfect uniforms for your brand, customers and employees will only give your restaurant a boost.