Think twice before settling on a cheap napkin and linen program

Opening a restaurant requires making so many decisions that may seem inconsequential until the day-to-day operations of your establishment really kick into gear. One of these choices may be your linen provider. Linen providers are responsible for delivering and cleaning all of a restaurant’s linen products, including napkins, table clothes, kitchen towels, and uniforms.
AllDay Industry recommends creating a partnership with a linen provider that has a reputation for quality control and service.

A restaurant requires a surprisingly large amount of linens to operate. For every service, a restaurant needs at least one set of napkins for each diner, a tablecloth per table, kitchen towels for the cooks, bar towels for the mixologists, and uniforms for the entire staff. Adding to the volume, you may need multiple full sets of linens for each operating day between deliveries. Overall, a restaurant needs tens of thousands of dollars in linens. Fortunately, current on-trend restaurant design is leaning away from tablecloths, which can save some linen costs. On the other hand, with the proliferation of open kitchens, restaurants are spending more on the uniforms and aprons of their cooking staff. Some concepts use uniforms as another touchpoint of their brand.

A typical linen arrangement is a flat fee per piece of linen, which covers pickup and delivery, laundering, and storage. The linens themselves are usually owned by the vendor to the benefit of the restaurateur. “When a service’s linens fall apart from wear and tear, they are on the hook for new linens, not the client”, said Christopher Hermanns, President of W.H. Linen Supply Co. Using paper products may seem like a viable option but usually ends up costing more in the long run. “Most people will use one cloth napkin, but grab a handful of paper napkins without even thinking,” said Christopher.

While some restaurateurs think that they can forgo using a service and instead run their linen program in house, it can be a costly mistake. Linen operators have a large, centralized location where a dedicated staff sorts, cleans and stores linens. If a restaurant were to do this in house, it requires a paid staff member to do the laundry as well storage space for the cleaned goods. Linen providers are also able to quickly iron tablecloths and are experts at removing stains.

Most linen purveyors require a restaurant to enter a multiyear contract. This protects the vendor from having to increase its product inventory, only to lose a client shortly after. Due to the length of the contract, your legal team should review the terms to make sure you can terminate the contract if your vendor is not fulfilling their duties, such as frequently late or non-existent deliveries.

Christopher recommends understanding what a vendor’s price really covers and be aware of any hidden costs like fuel or energy surcharges. Even though a vendor may have a low unit cost, these surcharges can add up quickly. Speaking to your vendor regularly can help you reduce your expenditures. “Check each invoice to make sure you are being charged correctly,” suggests Christopher. Too often, restaurants do not notify their vendor of personnel changes and find themselves paying for uniforms of departed employees each week.

One of the most important aspects is the quality of a vendor’s service. Linen vendors have an unfortunate industry-wide reputation for being unreliable. A restaurant depends on their vendor to make sure that the right quantity of linen arrives on time. A good vendor will be able to work with you to forecast changes in day to day needs, like hosting a banquet or private event. Look for vendors that have the capacity to send emergency stock, if you do miscalculate.

The quality of linens also affects the price of the arrangement. Better materials and different patterns all come at a premium. Napkins are one of the first hands-on interactions that your customer has with your establishment. This first tactile impression can set the stage for the rest of a customer’s experience. You do not have to settle for plain white linens, either. Each linen company has different inventory of patterns and fabrics. Though it is rare that a vendor will design a pattern for your establishment, it is not always out of the question, especially if it can be used for other clients. There is no harm in asking!

When choosing a linen vendor, you often get what you pay for—low cost suppliers provide a lesser quality set of linens or poorer service. “As a restaurant, you have to know what is important to you and your customers,” said Christopher. “Are you able to be successful if you are giving your customers an inexpensive, scratchy polyester napkin? Do they care? Will your customers care if you occasionally do not have enough stock because your vendor missed a delivery? If not, you can use a low-cost vendor.” A casual pizza joint may be able to switch to paper goods but it is hard to be a white tablecloth establishment without the requisite tablecloth.

By implementing internal guidelines, you can keep costs in check. “Once you are working with a vendor, a great way to save costs is to train your staff to respect your linens and treat them as their own,” says Christopher. “Many times, we will find that a chef used extra clean uniforms or tablecloths to clean a grease spill.” Most likely, those stains will not come out and your vendor will charge you for a replacement. Additionally, make sure that your staff, who may have more than one job, do not take their uniform to their next gig. Christopher often finds uniforms of one restaurant in the laundry pile of another client.

Finally, Christopher recommends working with a vendor that shares similar values as your concept. For Christopher, both he and his clients place a value on being “green” and protecting the environment. His clients will pay a bit more for an environmentally-friendly service.


AllDay Industry has the experience and the network to help you develop your concept from any stage of development. From finding the perfect space, hiring the right executive chef, or setting up a linens program, our team will act as your primary consultant to connect you to some of the best talent in the hospitality industry. Contact us at 212.346.0606 or info@alldayindustry.com.

To learn more about W.H. Linen Supply Co., reach out to Christopher Hermanns at chermanns@whlinen.com.