What’s in a dinner napkin? These days, more than you might think.

It’s always tempting to think of the industry we share as a place more characterized by sameness than change. While there’s some truth and probably comfort in that view, it obscures a larger truth that textile rentals are affected by changes in consumer habits and trends and, even to some extent, larger social and economic concerns. The following are a few of the trends and issues we have noted that are driving the business of our customers in recent months.

Generally, trends follow current fashion which usually generate on the West Coast and flow eastward. There are exceptions – including the napkin noted above – but they are exceptional because they are outliers in the general flow of things. In the restaurant world, most of the current textile trends come from the major ongoing shift away from a more formal dining atmosphere to a more casual style.

This shift has affected restaurant uniforms and apparel in a major way. The standard white chef clothing that was the model for many years has transitioned largely to a more informal look in the kitchen.

While the executive chef may still typically wear the chef coat, it is becoming far more usual these days for the rest of the kitchen staff to wear a cook’s shirt, otherwise known as a mechanic’s shirt. This item, also known internally as the SP24, is typically a short-sleeved shirt, often embroidered with the brand of the establishment on the breast. This more informal work shirt is typically black, charcoal or alternate shades of gray, although various other color options have also come into vogue depending on the brand’s color scheme, and more may be anticipated as branded regional restaurant concepts continue to proliferate and “go national.”

The same shift toward casual has affected table dress. We see many more restaurants embrace the idea of featuring napkins only, eliminating traditional tablecloths too signal a less formal look and a more casual dining experience.

Perhaps the single most striking event in the world of the table top has been the recent popularity of the bistro napkin. This trend is actually an East Coast phenomenon, and has been adapted and modified by restaurants in the universal desire to stand out in the customer’s world. The bistro napkin is larger than its standard cousin and generally sports a design or pattern. This is typically a series of color stripes down the middle, although other designs have been noted.

Casual style has invaded wait staff trends, as well, as a more casual look will often feature dress jeans with a button-down shirt. Here, the bistro napkin’s counterpart is the bistro apron or, more recently, the half bistro apron extending down as far as the knees. Occasionally, personal preference prevails, as when a chef relocating from the Las Vegas market brought with him a demand for chalk stripe aprons. The message being sent is that for everyone, fine dining is now synonymous with casual dining.

Color trends are informed by an overwhelming desire on the part of establishments – and of course, their patrons — to stand out and be different from their neighbors. We have seen an eruption of non-standard colors including purples, yellows and greens in an attempt to communicate uniqueness. Black and white is still popular, but has been accompanied by sandalwood and other earthy hues.

Trends in textiles also exhibit a shift, though a subtler one. For many years, cotton was the traditional and accepted way to go. The demands of durability now favor polyester and polyester blends, which last much longer. Cotton is still typical for special applications, such as hot plates.

Not all trends have taken hold. For example, napkins made from recyclables has not to date achieved the demand initially anticipated. Similarly, no 1970s-style “Made in the U.S.A.” movement has ever developed in textile trends, even in response to globalization the way it has in other industries. Miller’s has moved away from imported items for strategic reasons where possible – minimizing inconsistencies in products, for instance – as customers are interested in uniformity.

Turning now to other product opportunities, we note some recent developments in mats and specialty floor coverings. Comfort flow mats, with perforations in the mat, allow kitchen debris to pass through the mat while making work easier for the people standing on the mats. An increased emphasis on employee well-being has boosted demand for anti-fatigue mats, often through the kitchen complex, helping combat back fatigue. Some restaurants have taken these mats in quantities of 20-25, to cover the entire kitchen and dishwashing area. And of course, logo mats are popular given the constant emphasis on branding throughout the customer and employee experience.

Paper and sanitary items are resistant to trends, but largely for cost control reasons. Large food service companies use these items the way large grocery companies use loss-leader strategies. Their giveaway strategy can be combatted by delivering superior inventory management but constant education is necessary. In some customers, the Dyson hand dryers – trending not long ago – are now coming out in a return to paper towels!

With industrial customers, trends are more difficult to discern. Some manufacturers are moving away from uniforms altogether, or are supplying only one-half of the employee’s uniform requirement. In addition, the big national textile service companies, in the constant war over additional revenue sources, are now attempting to make inroads into the hospitality and food and beverage segments.

The key for Miller’s Textile Services is to provide education about textile trends and to constantly re-evaluate ways to boost a customer’s brand image in simpler and better ways.