It’s a given that restaurant staff should present a well-scrubbed appearance; after all, who would want to patronize an eatery where employee personal hygiene is unappetizingly sub-par? But beyond this (hopefully universal) baseline, restaurant operators grapple with other appearance related issues — such as whether to hire or retain those sporting tattoos, body piercings or unusually colored and/or styled hair. For many operators, this decision isn’t so clear-cut, even as these forms of self-expression have become more the norm than the exception.
It’s one that operators increasingly face. For example, a 2006 survey showed that one in four Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 had a tattoo; one in seven reported a piercing other than in the earlobe. In the 18 to 29 set, the numbers were even higher, with 48 percent indicating they had one or the other or both. Since this survey was conducted four years ago, it’s reasonable to assume these figures have risen.
In fact, says Joey Bramwell, director of operations for Austinbased DoubleDave’s Pizzaworks, a 54-site, primarily franchised company, it’s become challenging for his managers to find good employees who don’t have a tattoo or piercing, particularly since their staff ranges from 18 to 25 years old. Bramwell, at one time one of the biggest proponents against hiring people with tattoos, says that now when it comes to hiring, they take a “community standards” approach, set by their franchise owners who are expected to know their area and clientele.
“In the higher-end locations, we’ll not pick up employees with visible tattoos or body piercings,” Bramwell says. “But in the college locations, which are a little edgier and where customers also have these, (we will).” However, he continues, if the tattoos/ piercings would distract from the customer experience, they’ll pass on the hire (this rules out full sleeves, offensive tattoos and extreme piercings. Hair is less of a concern because employees wear hats). Additionally, employees with facial/ tongue piercings must remove them, per health department requirements.
According to Jill Morin, executive officer at Kahler Slater, a Milwaukee-based consulting company, by matching the employees to the customers’ expectations, DoubleDave’s takes the right approach. Morin explains that restaurant operators must consider what experience customers are anticipating and avoid jarring them by having employees who are out of sync with that expectation.
Morin, whose company focuses on creating a “total experience design” for restaurants and other businesses, says the following elements are essential to success:
? The perception of the business in the marketplace
? The place itself
Of these, the employee element is the most critical, says Morin. “If you get this one right, sometimes people will be more forgiving (of mishaps/ mistakes),” she explains. “But if you get this wrong, it is very hard to recover from this.” Lisa Gambardella, owner of Gambardella’s Pasta Bella, located in Fairbanks, agrees. Her clientele is a mix of college students, professionals, tourists and family. Approximately 25 percent of the staff has tattoos and/or piercings.
Because these are not typically associated with a “clean image” or with what her customers want to see, employees are asked to keep visible tattoos covered and to remove facial piercings, says Gambardella. Hair is considered on a per-person basis. Cleanliness counts most, she says, adding that her biggest concern is staff hygiene, especially since there are many students (her employees range from 18-to-35-years old) living in “dry” cabins that lack running water.
“We had an employee with a visible neck tattoo, but he presented a professional, impeccable appearance and he was very knowledgeable, so customers could overlook this,” Gambardella recalls. “But if an employee with tattoos was performing poorly, the customers would blame the tattoos.”
But tattoos and piercings fit right in with Piper Kapin’s two Back Road Pizza restaurants, both in Santa Fe. One is located in a hip, funky part of town with a diverse clientele. The other is in a business park where the customer mix is more professional. Eighty percent of her staff has tattoos/ piercings. Kapin generally doesn’t worry about putting these under wraps.
“They suit our business,” she says. “If someone got a tattoo I was uncomfortable with, I’d talk to them and they may have to cover it, but what counts is that the employees are good with the customers, careful in the kitchen, and clean.”
Cleanliness — specifically clean uniforms — is the biggest issue for him as well, says Doug Ferriman, owner of Crazy Dough’s Pizza. Ferriman has four fast-casual locations in Boston and Cambridge, all situated near colleges. The clientele is a mix of students, young professionals and urban dwellers. Employees range in age from 20 to 26; 20 percent have tattoos and/or piercings.
Ferriman doesn’t require employees to cover tattoos (unless they’re fresh or controversial, an issue that hasn’t arisen yet). For sanitation reasons, they’re required to remove facial/tongue piercings.
“There seems to be a trend of young people getting these,” he says. “They’re becoming more mainstream, so customers don’t comment on them.” And as this mainstreaming continues, says Bramwell, it’s something the industry will have to learn to tolerate. “Otherwise,” he says, “our pool of quality employees will slowly diminish.” ?
Managing Your Vibe
Too many restaurant operators leave things to chance when it comes to creating a memorable customer experience, says consultant Jill Morin. Instead, all the essential elements (employees, marketplace perception, products/services, place) require consideration and integration in a purposeful way.
“The starting point for any restaurant is identifying their vision for their business,” says Morin. “Who are you? How do you want to be different from the competition? Why will people choose you? Why will people want to work for you?
“And, what experience is your target market expecting?” continues Morin, adding that this is where the employee element is especially key.
The next step is avoiding a mismatch between the vision and the experience and the perception in the marketplace, she explains. However, the objectivity required for this can be challenging; why Morin says some restaurants may want to consider using an outside party for assessment purposes.
Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelancer specializing in writing on topics of interest to all manner of businesses. She is based in Long Beach, California.