When Dickey’s Barbecue Pit invested in a brand refresh in 2015, CEO Roland Dickey Jr. decided the uniforms needed an overhaul, as well.
Since the ’80s, the uniforms had been what Dickey calls “generic” and “lame,” consisting of canary-colored aprons, T-shirts, and button-downs for management. “We just hadn’t put a lot of thought in it,” he says.
Today, employees wear hipster-inspired plaid shirts (untucked), denim aprons with leather straps, and black ball caps with burlap accents. Tattoos and piercings? You’ll see those, too.
“That’s just the way Americans are moving,” Dickey says. “We’re pretty liberal on that. In the old days, it was more formal; we just decided that we could still have uniformity, but we could have a modern look and evolve as the times do.”
Dickey’s isn’t alone. Starbucks made industry headlines in 2014 as it embraced tattoos and black denim, and in July it updated its dress code again, saying yes to dyed hair, dresses, hats, and more.
And KFC, as part of its “Re-Colonelization,” is bringing back its signature red color with new shirt styles, while also adding mock chef coats to its uniform lineup, says Kevin Hochman, chief marketing officer for KFC U.S.
“We made the change to offer more fit options for the uniform shirts, with both comfort and professionalism in mind. It gives team members the opportunity to choose the fit they prefer and the one they feel looks best on them,” he says.
Industry-wide, the changes are trickling down from a national trend favoring casual and modern dress in the workplace.
In decades past, quick-serve and fast-casual uniforms were polyester; many chains are moving now to wicking materials or soft, thin cotton in different colors—or letting employees choose their own style, as Starbucks has.
And while comfort may seem paramount, employee attraction and retention via the “cool factor” is what’s really driving the trend, says Andy Roe, general manager at SurePayroll. Last year, the online payroll provider surveyed 2,000 small businesses, including restaurants, and found 50 percent favored a more casual, self-expressive environment.
Employees often perceive this freedom as innovative and flexible—something offered by many startups and tech companies, and now the hospitality industry.
“The survey showed how smaller businesses can offer the same type of great [perks] to retain employees but maybe not have to shell out the money of traditional benefits,” Roe says.
It could also be that members of the Millennial generation have more employment choices in the restaurant industry and don’t want to wear what they might deem unstylish or embarrassing if there’s a better option.
After all, employers are paying attention to what Millennials value. In the first quarter of 2015, Millennials surpassed Generation X to inhabit the largest share of the workforce in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. Today, one in three workers is a Millennial (roughly ages 18–34) with an even larger percentage of 18–24-year-olds working in foodservice.
Still, restaurants must look beyond the “cool” factor and also consider employee satisfaction. A happier crew translates to a better customer experience.
“The experience comes to life through our partners,” says Reggie Borges, manager of global communications for Starbucks, in an email. “While we are expanding the dress code so partners have a chance to bring more of their personality, customers can expect their appearance to reflect the world-class service our partners deliver every day, including the iconic green apron.”
It may be too early to tell, but feedback so far from both employees and customers has been positive.
“Ultimately, we want our partners to feel rewarded for the outstanding work they do, and recognize their role in building Starbucks as a different kind of company,” Borges says.
Just as the green apron remains a staple for Starbucks, other brands have iconic accessories or flourishes that experts say should not change with the trends. Furthermore, casual attire should never compromise an employee’s ability to do his or her job.
Food safety and employee safety are considerations with any uniform changes at KFC, Hochman says. Some elements, like slip-resistant shoes, will always be a requirement.
Other factors, such as fit and comfort, can create a better, more comfortable work environment, as is the case with KFC’s uniform changes.
“The feedback from team members has been great,” Hochman says. “They’re excited to have a modern look, and particularly like the change from unisex T-shirts to male/female fits that are more flattering and comfortable because they fit better. They also really like that we have brought back the color red, which is important to our brand.”
Tattoos at KFC are acceptable as well, as long as they’re not offensive.
Dickey says casual dress and the evolution of the quick-serve and fast-casual uniform doesn’t equate to sloppy performance, despite certain stereotypes. He remembers the cowboy hats and the button-down dress shirts of the ’70s when he was growing up at his family’s restaurant.
“It really wasn’t that long ago. When I started my career, there were a lot of rules, but now that’s just not the case anymore,” Dickey says. “The uniform needs to reflect well on your brand. … If you do it right, your crew is going to appreciate that, and that will instill pride in them.”
Many quick-serve and fast-casual restaurants are beginning to separate formality from professionalism. Dickey says that while there is some natural overlap between the two, he believes they don’t need to align completely. A crewmember with body art and piercings can still do a very professional job of serving customers, he adds.
Dress may not play the role it once did, but Dickey says there will always be objective hygiene standards across the industry, like body odor and dirty nails.
“I think people, especially the younger generation, understand the distinction,” he says. “We are very serious about our trade. Our craft is great barbecue. Beyond that, we do not take ourselves too seriously.”