Restaurant owners project their brand with chic staff uniform

Many restaurants are putting thought into the uniforms their staff wear, making sure they reflect their look and brand

Gone are the days when service staff at food and beverage outlets are attired in inconspicuous outfits, an afterthought in the large scheme of operating and setting up a restaurant.

These days, business owners are putting effort into uniforms, making sure that they fit the look and feel of the eatery and reflect the role of service staff.

At Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill and National Kitchen by Violet Oon, both owned by the cooking doyenne, waitstaff and bartenders are attired in crisp black and white uniforms, designed by Oon's daughter Su-lyn Tay, director of Violet Oon Singapore.

It took the 41-year-old, who previously ran a clothing line based in the United States, about a month to decide on the look for the uniforms. Each has an Asian element, such as the mandarin collar.

"We wanted the uniforms to feel smart and also capture an Asian element reflective of our brand, which is how the mandarin collar came in," she says. "And to capture the brand essence of the black and white theme, we played around with the contrast collar and cuffs to reflect that."

The designer behind the luxury Ong Shunmugam womenswear label, Priscilla Shunmugam, was brought in to design the hostess' uniform - a made-to-measure top and skirt in black with a violet lining - as Ms Tay felt her designs were elegant, inventive and "captured the essence of our multicultural society".

Adds Ms Tay: "The mandarin collar and even the midriff reminds me of an Indian sari, where the top is cropped ."

Over at Halia at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, black and white uniforms were recently replaced with batik-print creations.

The new uniforms feature a ginger-flower batik print, a collaboration between the restaurant and Ms Della Ong, founder of Little Nyonya Batik, an online boutique that sells Peranakan fashion and accessories.

Ms Esther Wee, managing director of Halia, says: "Just like its location in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the uniform was meant to look breezy and friendly, with some floral designs.

"Our old uniforms, classic formal shirts with a mandarin collar which was paired with a simple apron, reflected our previous fine-dining concept. When Halia rebranded to focus on our Asian heritage, we needed a new uniform to reflect the vibrancy of our heritage.

"We consider our staff our ambassadors and what they wear reflects what we are as a brand."

At The Coffee Academics' two outlets here, staff wear denim and leather-strapped aprons over their own shirts and pants. The apron is designed by the Hong Kong speciality coffee brand's founder, Ms Jennifer Liu, 41.

Ms Nicole Ng, the brand's marketing and business development manager here, says: "We place great emphasis on art and design and how this affects the overall customer experience in our stores. Because our uniform looks casual yet smart, customers don't feel intimidated and feel more comfortable when interacting with our baristas."

The Coffee Academics can be found at Scotts Square and Raffles City Shopping Centre. It has eight outlets in Hong Kong.

At Steamroom with The Pillar and Stones (SRPS), which opened last month in Orchard Central, managers don casual laboratory-style coats that reach the top of their knees, in what co-founder and artist Wong Lip Chin says is an "extension of the brand".

The 30-year-old, who runs the multi-concept space with a coffee and tea room, a restaurant, a retail store and art laboratory, says: "When we talked about the concept of the space, we talked about being experimental. (Our concept) reminded us of those school days in the science lab.

"White lab coats are quite stern- looking, so we thought, let's have a casual kind of approach to the lab coat. It looks a little like workwear as well and is slightly softer with the linen and cotton fabric."

Waiters are dressed in black turtleneck tops, jeans and sneakers - a nod to the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Over at retail and restaurant space Gallery & Co at National Gallery Singapore, staff wear a white short-sleeved shirt and blue pants from home-grown fashion brand Matter. The patterns on the pants reflect Gallery & Co's focus on the basic elements of art, such as dots, lines, circles and triangles, says marketing head Lee Jia Qian.

Dr Seshan Ramaswami, associate professor of marketing education at Singapore Management University, says the best businesses ensure that staff uniforms fit in with their brand positioning, from the store's ambience and facade to its product packaging.

He adds: "I think other retailers, cafes and restaurants here will pick up on this trend and try to emulate it. But you can't just copy uniforms. You need to create a look consistent with your own value proposition and positioning."

Meanwhile, customers welcome such uniforms.

Psychologist Natasha Lim, 26, says: "Having staff in stylish uniforms adds a nice aesthetic touch that enhances the vibe of the cafe or restaurant. For example, Gallery & Co's uniform is pretty casual, but it's also professional. I think that presents the staff as more approachable."

The Coffee Academics at Scotts Square and Raffles City Shopping Centre

What senior barista Simargeet Singh and manager and head barista Vanessa Caceres (both above) like most about their uniform at The Coffee Academics at Scotts Square is that it helps them to project the right image. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM



Staff get a denim apron with leather straps and are free to customise it with pins. Most choose to wear the apron over jeans and a collared button-up shirt.


Aprons are typically more functional than aesthetic, to protect the wearer from spills and splashes in the kitchen, but the denim apron at The Coffee Academics has both form and function.

Senior barista Simargeet, who has worked at other cafes, says that aprons are a must in this line of work. The trick, he says, is to make it look good.

"Our apron here is a lot more chic and gives off that bespoke coffee vibe. Also, it's comfortable and it serves its function," he says. It is also easy to clean - he simply tosses it into the washing machine once a week.

Staff customise the aprons with a barrage of pins, some coffee- related, some not.

Ms Caceres, who has a keychain of a portafilter hanging on one of her front leather straps, loves that she can style it with pins.

"It's awesome. Everybody notices the apron, especially the customers. And they find the pins fun. It's a conversation starter," says the Filipino mother of one.

Mr Simargeet prefers to put fewer pins on his apron as he does not like the extra weight.

What the baristas like most about their uniform is that it helps them to project the right image.

Mr Simargeet says: "At the end of the day, it comes down to professionalism and the uniform plays a part. It really helps with projecting a certain image and to look presentable."

Steamroom with The Pillar and Stones at Orchard Central

(Clockwise from left) Barista Muhammad Zaid, 25, executive chef and cuisine principal Stephan Zoisl, 36, beverage manager Mohamad Nasri, 39, and guest relations officer Siti Nurmahirah, 30. 


Male waitstaff wear a cottonspandex blend turtleneck top with their own pants and shoes. Female waitstaff can wear either the same top or a shirt dress in black or white. Managers wear a blue linen and cotton lab coat over their own shirt and pants. Chefs don a white seersucker jacket.

The uniforms are designed by home-grown label Emporium of the Modern Man.


At first glance, Mr Nasri looks like a scientist or doctor of some sort, dressed in a smartlooking lab coat, with a calculator hanging out of the front pocket (it is just a prop). Sometimes customers, he says, do not realise he is the manager.

"But I suppose that means the uniform makes me look more approachable," he says. "My calculator acts as an ice-breaker with customers. It gets them curious about it, which then allows me to chat with them."

The Singaporean typically wears a blue shirt to match his lab coat, but goes for a soft pink one when he is "feeling courageous".

He says with a laugh: "I like the whole look of it. It's fun and it's like dressing up for work, but in a different way. I especially like the blue of the coat and customers also like the two-tone colour when I roll up the sleeve cuff."

Similarly, executive chef Zoisl likes how his uniform looks.

Zoisl, who also runs the restaurant Chef's Table by Chef Stephan in Tras Street, has about 30 of his own chef's jackets - many starched, stiff and white - and finds the seersucker jacket "totally different".

The father of two young boys says: "The cut is different - it's altered to fit us - and the design is well thought through, unique and made for Singapore's heat. It is 100 per cent cotton so it's very comfortable to wear and feels good against my skin."

Apart from being comfortable, he appreciates that it looks attractive.

"Because we have an open kitchen concept, where diners can see us, it's good to wear something unique and presentable," he adds.

Gallery & Co at National Gallery Singapore

Ms Natasha Seow, assistant crew leader at Gallery & Co, says her uniform is comfortable and is similar to her personal style.


Retail staff wear a short-sleeved white cotton shirt with a blue Gallery & Co logo embroidered on the front pocket, with blue pants from local fashion brand Matter. Waitstaff at the restaurant wear a black top with the same pants. The restaurant will be rebranded later this month as the Papaya Paddling Club and staff will have new uniforms to match.


The chirpy Ms Seow loves her uniform so much that she wears it before and after her work shift when she meets friends for dinner or drinks.

The design communications student at Lasalle College of the Arts, who works part-time at Gallery & Co, says: "I like the uniform because it's similar to my personal style.

"I wear a lot of roomy pants, which I call my gongfu pants, because they're comfortable. I purposely got my work pants oversized so that they are more comfortable when I'm moving around."

It is a far cry from the days when she worked at a fine-dining restaurant in 2015 and had to wear an all-black uniform.

"I think having a stylish uniform makes a big difference at work," she says.

"The people who come to the National Gallery are a mixture of tourists and locals as well as people from the art industry and the uniform complements the space."

Professing to be particular about her shirts, she gives the thumbs-up to her work shirt.

"It's comfortable and I love it. The material is thick and doesn't crease easily.

"I also like that it has a pocket in front so that I can put in my notepad and a pen," she says.

Ms Lee Jia Qian, 24, marketing head for Gallery & Co, says: "At Gallery & Co, we believe art can be fun and that trickles down to our uniforms.

"We want staff to feel comfortable and we believe that if they are comfortable, they will have more confidence and won't be too uptight.

"This way, they can serve customers in a more relaxed way and do their jobs better."


Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill at Clarke Quay and National Kitchen by Violet Oon at National Gallery Singapore

Ms Jean Samonte, 26, hostess at Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill, National Kitchen by Violet Oon and Violet Oon Singapore.


Waitstaff wear white (for National Kitchen by Violet Oon) or black (for Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill) shirts with black aprons; bartenders wear a vest and a bow tie over a white shirt; and managers wear a vest and a tie over a white shirt. The hostess wears a two-piece top and skirt set designed by local womenswear designer Priscilla Shunmugam.


How often can a person say that his or her work uniform is a made-to-measure design by renowned local designer Priscilla Shunmugam?

Ms Samonte, who works as a hostess at Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill, National Kitchen by Violet Oon and Violet Oon Singapore at Bukit Timah, can.

Understandably, the hostess, whose job is to greet arriving guests and show them to their table, was excited when she went for her uniform fitting when she joined the company two years ago.

"I imagined myself wearing it at work. It matches the restaurant and it's so sexy and sophisticated," says the Filipino.

The uniform is plain, but there is a vertical row of black buttons along the spine and the top has unique, roomy sleeves that swish elegantly when Ms Samonte moves.

It draws stares from patrons who recognise the silhouette, but are unable to place a finger on the designer until Ms Samonte confirms it.

"Customers either ask where it's from or they will be like, 'I know your uniform…' before trailing off, then I'll tell them the designer," the hostess says with a laugh, happy to let them in on the secret.

Mr Naven Kumar, 24, bartender at Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill. 

"Mostly, they tell me it's a very nice uniform. I get such compliments as least once a night."

She buns up her hair and wears red lipstick as part of the uniform.

She also jokes that the outfit makes her monitor her weight as it is quite fitting.

"It feels good to wear something made for me," she adds.

Halia restaurant at Singapore Botanic Gardens

Halia (clockwise from above) server Abdul Azim, 25, service captain Ma Rovie Rose Salvador, 22, and mixologist Ilayaraja, 27. 


There are two variations - a pink ginger-flower batik motif against a black base for the servers and the same motif against a pink base for the supervisors. Female staff wear a three-quarter-sleeved top with a wrap-around detail similar to a sarong, while male staff wear short-sleeved shirts. All staff wear their own black pants and shoes.


When Halia changed its uniforms, from a plain mandarin-collar shirt in white or black with a black apron, Mr Azim says customers started responding positively from the get go.

"Our uniforms are a good conversation starter," he says. "Customers would ask us about the batik print. It's a good way to break the ice.

"Being more casual, it also sets the tone for conversations and interactions with guests, which makes for a more candid setting all round."

The Singaporean, who has worked at the restaurant for five years, says the new uniform affects how he presents himself.

"Before (with the white mandarin-collar shirt), we presented ourselves quite formally, but with this current one, it is a lot more casual but still smartlooking.

"Having a uniform gives a sense of identity in how you represent yourself."

The new uniform, he says, is also practical. Being custom-made, the front pocket of the shirt fits the restaurant's digital ordering device perfectly and the light cotton material is comfortable enough to wear in the eatery's alfresco dining area.

It did take some time to get used to wearing pink, though, he says with a laugh.

"But now I have grown to appreciate pink in my wardrobe."