Lawry's uniforms Photos courtesy of Lawry’s The Prime Rib

Lawry’s CEO sizes up chain’s classic server uniform

Richard Frank discusses a potential update to the brand’s signature “brown gown”

For 78 years, Lawry’s The Prime Rib has maintained a mostly uniform interpretation of server garb with its classic “brown gown.”

The brown and white dress with a white cap has been a strong suit of the Pasadena, Calif.-based Lawry’s Restaurants Inc.’s brand going back to its founding in 1938, president and CEO Richard Frank told Nation’s Restaurant News.

While it might not suit everyone’s fancy, the 10-unit chain’s uniforms have remained basically the same through the years, with slight changes and modifications.

Of the four domestic restaurants — Beverly Hills, Calif.; Chicago; Dallas and Las Vegas — only the Dallas location doesn’t use the “brown gown” uniform. The company has six licensed Lawry’s restaurants in Asia.

“From a public perception, when we opened in Dallas 30 years ago, we got a lot of public push-back,” Frank said. “The market in Dallas didn’t understand the uniform and its heritage. Ultimately, we made a change. Our servers in Dallas do not wear the brown gown. They thought it looked like an upstairs maid’s outfit.” 

The company later added male servers after the 2009 settlement of a class-action discrimination lawsuit brought by U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Lawry’s, know for its tableside-cart prime rib service, is in the process of assessing a number of branding elements, including the uniforms, Frank said.

Frank’s grandfather, Lawrence Frank, introduced the garb at the first Beverly Hills location, patterning them after uniforms of servers at the Harvey House chain of railroad restaurants.

Frank discussed the “brown gown” in an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News:

How important is the server uniform to Lawry’s brand identity?

To my family, the uniform has always been very important. It’s been a part of the brand identity. It has been something that stands out. We are in the process of looking at all the things in our brand identity that are important, not just to us, but to our guests.

What are you considering?

Do we tweak it? Do we change it a little? Do we change it a lot? Or do we jettison it entirely? We’re trying to do some deep thinking on that. All I can say is: Stay tuned.

What was the original idea behind the “brown gown”?

Something in it triggered my grandfather. … My grandfather felt that in a world of fine dining, which at the time was dominated by male waiters, he wanted to create a different feel.

The 1938 uniform was lighter in color than the current “brown gown”. Why did it change? 

I don’t know why we changed it. It might have been a maintenance thing. A server could easily change an apron, but a server could wear the gown the rest of the night.

What other changes have you noticed?

The original uniform had short sleeves, but the length of the sleeve has gone up and down over the years. When it was long, the cuffs were getting into the salad. The décolletage, or neckline, has gone up and down as well. The outfit has always had a collar, but the original was buttoned up to the neck. In the “Go Go” years of the ‘70s, the cleavage got a little deeper. The collar has gone from round to pointier.

What have been the reactions of servers to the uniform?

Some prospective servers look at it and ask, “I’ve got to wear that?” It’s something that is not uniformly looked at as positive. We now have both male and female servers, so some things have changed. We gave women good paying jobs when it wasn’t common. That’s an important part of the heritage of the uniform. We were in a lot of ways ahead of the times.

What’s next? 

We’ve been spending a lot of time talking about what we might do. My grandfather, when he conceived of the restaurant, thought it would be a one-entrée restaurant. He was convinced by his brother-in-law to open with a full menu, but within six months it was prime rib from the carts. 

How does a legacy brand like Lawry’s approach change? 

Over the years, we’ve had the luxury of not having to change our menu very much, or very frequently. The key challenge I’m always looking at is: When is the time to change and what do you change? 

And what about a possible change to the uniform? 

It’s an element that does matter. You have to think about it. You have to consider: How does it fit with the overall brand? At most restaurants these days, the uniform is a non-entity, a non-element. To us, that’s an important thing. It has been important to us over the years, stubbornly so. Ultimately: What’s going to matter? As [casual-dining pioneer and late Brinker International Inc. founder] Norm Brinker said, “If it doesn’t matter to the guest, it doesn’t matter at all.” 

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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