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Catering to the Chef: Chef Uniforms of Dallas Really Cooks

For more than 30 years, Leonard Sloan was quite content working the wholesale end of the apparel business. Back in the late 1970s, he started Leonard Sloan & Associates Inc., and was looking for direction for his business. He worked during the day in his upstart company, while working evenings in a restaurant for much needed cash flow. It didnt take long for him to see the perfect marriage of the two. He hated the shirts the restaurant manager made him wear as a waiter, so Sloan offered to sell the manager a better quality shirt for the same amount of money. When the deal netted him $700, he saw wholesale apparel with branded company logos as the business for Leonard Sloan & Associates. He continued to work in the restaurant waiting tables, preparing food and managing the kitchen while growing his own business during the day. After a few years, Sloan quit the restaurant to sell branded apparel wholesale.

He ran Leonard Sloan & Associates Inc., providing custom screen printing and embroidery for a huge variety of customers. He delved deeply into his specialties, thereby bringing the first computerized embroidery machine into the Dallas, Texas, area. Simultaneously, he began perfecting a printing process whereby he prints on dark fabrics with a specialized dye-removal process instead of screening white under the colored layers. This process allows the image to be dry cleaned and ironed. The printed image cannot be felt and does not close up the porosity of the knit, which allows the wearer to be comfortable in the uniform.

Sloan says, I began my business by walking down Greenville Avenue and selling to about 20 restaurants in one day. Approximately 20 years later, I ventured heavily into the chef uniform business. Eventually, the transition from restaurants to the hospitality industry became another clear direction for Leonard Sloan & Associates. We had sold the corporate apparel and restaurant industry for over 20 years before we finally broke into the back-of-the-house part of the industry. Were now a stocking distributor for ChefWorks and have wholesaled their garments for the last nine years. Sloan says, And when we sent out a pair of shoes, Id say 70 percent of them came back. Sometimes you send them back and forth a few times, and the chef would end up with $40 in freight on a $90 pair of shoes. After seeing so many returns due to wrong sizes, I decided the only way to buy or sell shoes is to have the customer fitted by a professional shoe salesperson.

For this reason, he set up a mini chef shoe retail store in the office among the desks and filing cabinets. This procedure allowed the chefs to come by and try on the slip-resistant shoes as well as see the selection of stocked chef jackets. Then one day it dawned on him that what applies in the chefs kitchen also applied to his own business presentation is everything. Sloan realized his customers would be better served by a retail storefront and showroom. The concept of ChefUniforms of Dallas grew from Sloan making chef apparel readily available.

After realizing his specialized niche, word of ChefUniforms of Dallas quickly spread among the chefs and restaurant owners. With a business expansion in the plans in June of 2007, Sloan decided to open up ChefUniforms of Dallas as a retail store in the front of his new location. Sloan says of the new storefront, Its all about having the customer come in and be able to try it on.

The store boasts crisp white walls with simple wall racks, along with mannequin displays to enhance the area. The main sales floor holds chefs coats, hats, pants, shoes, knives and aprons. A separate adjacent showroom holds apparel for waitstaff, bartenders, hosts, managers, cocktail servers and bussers. Samples hang ready to be tried on. There is an adjacent conference table for discussion of custom embroidery or screen printing for the garments. A computer allows the chef to select a font and have a color-accurate copy of his logo, with personalization, presented to him before he leaves. Chefs have remarked that they will no longer deal with other companies via phone or catalog; ChefUniforms of Dallas has far more fonts from which to choose and can show chefs on the spot what the finished item will look like.

Sloan also studied the local competition on other chef items. He says, They offer knives from cheap to expensive. I carry only ChefWorks knives, from which the executive chef can purchase the forged knives for his chefs or the stamped knives for his line cooks. Chefs buy ChefWorks jackets because they know the quality of the jackets, thereby qualifying the new knives in the marketplace. The competition can beat my knife on price, but because I have a local retail store, I can provide more variety of products and end up selling ChefWorks knives which caters to the chef.

In addition to the showrooms, ChefUniforms of Dallas offers a full gamut of custom-order garments and embellishment. Five of the 19-member staff of Leonard Sloan & Associates operate three embroidery machines, which share space in the building housing ChefUniforms of Dallas. They are able to construct custom garments on-site from their huge catalog of patterns or can manufacture whatever the chef can dream up something totally new and different. Being able to show the chefs the pattern room opens up a whole new world to them, Sloan says, Most have never seen a custom apparel wholesale operation.

Many chefs nowadays are running the whole restaurant, not just the kitchen, so they want to show their style in everything from the chef coats to the maitre ds apparel. The stock garments get them started, but the custom pattern option really seems to bring it to a level that many chefs and managers hadnt even considered and its something they love.

We lead them through the chef uniform store, and then we lead them to the showroom and they can observe our custom manufacturing capabilities. I get them in and start with the basics, and the next thing you know, the chef is bringing in his maitre d, his director of operations, his bar manager, says Sloan.

To finish off any garment, whether off the shelf or custom created, Sloan encourages embroidery to all his customers. The quality embroidery the company can provide often exceedes what is typically offered in chef apparel. The quality of small lettering and details can make or break the look of the kitchen and restaurant staff, and the staffs experience at ChefUniforms of Dallas, along with a commitment to quality plus the high-end machinery, allows for the best finished logo.

Sloan says the superior embroidery brings in customers because the chefs understand that the finished look is essential to a strong image. He compares a badly stitched logo to a chef just tossing a clump of parsley on top of the entre. When placed correctly and with an artistic touch, the parsley adds to the beauty of the dish. The same holds true for custom embroidery.
S
loan prides himself on every product sold through the company. Because we arent tied down to any retail agreement, we sell all the brands from Bragard, Culinary Classics, Chefwear, ChefWorks, New Chef, Red Kap and more. I pick and choose what products I want to carry, he says. The reason I stay with the products I do is because Ive looked at it, bought it, examined it, and its the best product for the money. Ive handled it all, worn it all and sold it all. I have fun selling clothes because Im not locked in like a factory rep. I did that once, and I was so limited. But this way, Im in control of what I sell.

Sloan and his sales staff make a point of asking lots of questions of the customer before recommending a product or making a sale. Customers are happier, he says, when you take the time to understand their conceptual ideas and then match them with a product that will best meet their specific needs.

The retail store has already proven itself a stellar investment. 2007 was a record year for ChefUniforms of Dallas. Sloan says he has sold more shoes in four months with a retail store than in four years as a wholesaler. He says, There are quite a number of white tablecloth restaurants that are within five minutes of this building, so this is a prime location for our retail store. Our sign was finally installed in December, but we had customers for three months prior to that. We had not even advertised the store yet, it was so new. But we have people finding us on Google. We have an online store, www.chefuniformsofdallas.com, where customers can shop, or they can visit our retail store.

One customer in particular found the company on the Internet, visited the store and bought 150 coats and 150 pants on her first visit. Sloan boxed up the order, ran the credit card and promised a personal visit to the chef in a week to determine further needs for the new restaurant. Sloan says, It is amazing to see how the website drives business to the brick-and-mortar location. While he will always prefer selling in person, Sloan does stress that an Internet site and online store has been invaluable to boosting sales. The store is powered by the Uniform Market Store System, helping provide the framework and catalog without the potential cost of starting from scratch. And he notes that Internet search engines are quickly becoming the primary source for contact information instead of the phone book.

There is also a large percentage of the chef uniform business in particular that is done online. Sloan points out that many restaurants arent in big cities, so the chefs and managers dont have access to retail uniform stores. The Internet can bring that business to ChefUniforms of Dallas, no matter where the actual restaurant is located. Sloan mentions customers he serves from as far away as New Jersey and New York City.

The staff of 19 includes Sloan; Jane, his wife who serves as office manager/bookkeeper; Marc, art director; Libby, designer; Jesse, production manager; Frank, shipping/receiving manager; and Joe, manager of ChefUniforms of Dallas. Leonard Sloan & Associates Inc. also employs five embroiderers, five screen printers, one pattern maker and one on the sales staff. Many of his employees have worked with Sloan for 12 years or more, a few as much as 18 years. Sloan treats them with respect, and they in turn respect their customers requests and needs.

Its really nice knowing the chefs of the restaurants because all of a sudden Im somebody. Im really nobody, I just sell them clothes. But most times I dont have to stand in line at a restaurant if I dont have a reservation, because I know the chefs and the maitre d. I just love that, Sloan says. Last summer I went to one restaurant with my dad, where they knew me by name and treated us most graciously. Wow, who are you? Dad asked. I said Im just the guy who makes them look professional. The uniform is the key to everything, and they know we cater to them.

Chef Uniforms of Dallas
5513 Maple Avenue
Dallas, TX 75235
(214) 350-2440
(800) 749-0717
www.chefuniformsofdallas.com

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Spring & Summer 2008 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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