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2012 UNIVATOR Awards: Eight Great Companies that Brought Innovation to Market this Year

The UNIVATOR Awards recognize innovation within the uniform industry and serve as a reminder that, even in times of economic upheaval, companies both large and small can still improve.

This current round acknowledges eight winners – some household names and some newcomers – who bucked tradition and questioned convention to develop unique uniform programs, inventive product ideas and eco-friendly innovations. The 2012 UNIVATOR Awards provide a snapshot of what’s new in the industry, from tiny fiber structures that vastly improve a police officer’s comfort to a multi-billion-dollar restaurant chain’s complete uniform program overhaul. These forward-thinking companies have earned UNIVATOR Awards for themselves, and they’ve also helped revitalize the industry with their creativity.

Winner: HPI Direct
Award: Uniform Program Innovation for Hard Rock Cafe

For some restaurants, a redesigned uniform program might include some crisp new shirts, custom silk ties or colorful aprons. Yet for Hard Rock Cafe, an international chain of restaurants boasting 150 locations in 53 countries, new aprons alone weren’t going to cut it. The Hard Rock Cafe was looking to completely revamp its uniform program, and HPI Direct delivered designs that hit a high note with the chain.

The Hard Rock Cafe recently embarked on an overall rebranding effort, in large part to differentiate the restaurant from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino chain, and the restaurant executives decided that a new uniform program would be a key component of this effort. The Hard Rock Cafe wanted to create a subtly stylish look without the use of heavy logos. Sarah Phelps, project manager at HPI Direct, explains, “The Hard Rock Cafe has their logo retail shirts that they sell, but they wanted something different for the uniforms. That was their direction. Their new theme is ‘elevate,’ and they wanted the new uniform to be more about the style details and less about the logo.”

HPI was not yet Hard Rock’s uniform provider, but it sketched and presented some preliminary designs with the goal of taking over the program. Initially, says Phelps, “it was all about the look. They wanted something very rock-and-roll, very dark. They wanted black and charcoal. The look was more focused on the design details.” The sketches show a zip-front dress accented with contrasting black topstitching to outline details, up-close shots of antique nickel rivet buttons, and sparks of fiery red, jolting each piece to life.

HPI Direct conducted a design presentation for Hard Rock, showing the sketches on boards and passing around sample fabrics. The presentation was well received. “They really liked the stretch chambray that we picked out. The challenge with the fabrics was that we showed really nice, textured, retail-quality fabrics, and then we had to figure out how to achieve that look but make it uniform quality. We worked with the mill to create a cotton/poly/spandex blend that would be more durable,” says Phelps.

HPI also collaborated with Hard Rock to create a unique graphic for the restaurant chain. Phelps says, “There’s a tattoo graphic that the hotels use, and they wanted something different for the restaurant. We developed a Celtic heart design. It’s more of a tribal look instead of a tattoo look to differentiate the Hard Rock Cafe from the hotels.”

Once the Hard Rock Cafe approved sample garments, HPI began to design a wear-testing program, which was implemented in mid-January. Employees in the Los Angeles, Orlando, Berlin, and Brussels Hard Rock locations will wear the sample uniforms and provide their feedback to HPI. A wear-testing guide provides instructions for the test and encourages employees to “Have fun mixing it up” and to show their “personal style and not be restricted to the same outfit every day.”

Why we like it …

To cater to the Hard Rock Cafe’s unique style and attitude, HPI Direct put together a look first and worked out the details later. HPI combined stock and custom pieces and incorporated a Celtic heart graphic that gives the Hard Rock Cafe a sense of individuality while still respecting the restaurant’s desire to keep its uniforms light on the logos. The result is a uniform program that is fashion-forward, completely functional and exactly what the client ordered.

Winner: FOURMY (a division of Cintas)
Award: Uniform Program Innovation for McDonald’s Canada

In 2011, a popular Canadian restaurant chain launched a $1 billion renovation of its 1,400 Canadian locations. All locations will be completely transformed by the end of 2012, and the restaurants that are already finished tout chic, modern interiors replete with elegant fireplaces, sleek, flat-screen televisions, gourmet espresso bars and rich, indulgent cuisine. Along with the renovations, the chain is implementing a brand-new uniform program for is 80,000 employees. Managers and crew members alike will don stylish black uniforms made from recycled fabrics and can express their personal style using wedges of bold colors. Reflective piping will mimic the restaurant’s glistening stainless steel, and bright golden arches will remind customers that they are, indeed, at McDonald’s.

The new uniform program was designed by Canadian division of Cintas Corp., Sally Fourmy & Associates. McDonald’s Canada has been a client of Sally Fourmy & Associates since 1978, turning to the luxury brand often to meet the demands of its uniform program, which, according to Fourmy Design Manager Kass Graham, is “constantly evolving.” Yet the current transformation is particularly significant, as it coincides with the Destination 2012 renovation program, far and away the largest renovation in the 44-year history of McDonald’s Canada.

The new crew collection consists of a trendy black color palette and slim silhouettes. One of the collection’s key pieces is the wedge polo, an upscale adaptation of the traditional polo featuring narrow wedges of color that can be added, changed or removed. This allows employees to change their colors based on position, preference or restaurant theme. Graham explains, “Restaurants can choose how they would like to handle employees’ color schemes, making each restaurant unique.”

McDonald’s Canada is also using the new uniform program as a way to further its green initiative. Fabrics are made from eco-friendly fabrics, such as recycled polyester and sustainable bamboo. When uniforms reach the end of their wearable lives, they can be returned to Cintas for downcycling, a process in which the uniforms are broken down into fibers to be transformed into other usable fabrics, keeping textiles out of the landfills.

Why we like it …

When McDonald’s Canada began its $1 billion makeover, it recognized the importance of an updated uniform program. Its trusted partner, Sally Fourmy & Associates, delivered a program that helps the chain present a sophisticated look, aligns with the company’s green initiative and helps give employees a sense of freedom and personal style.

Winner: Clipper Corp.
Award: Uniform Program Innovation for Mimi’s Café

The saying goes that too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth. In the case of Mimi’s Café, too many suppliers were spoiling the style of this cute French restaurant. To give it that certain je ne sais quoi, Mimi’s Café turned to Clipper Corp., which transformed its disorganized program into a cohesive one that truly meets its needs.

Mimi’s Café is a fast-casual national restaurant chain with a French twist. The exterior is reminiscent of a quaint French country home, and the interior is inviting, featuring stained wood and exposed brick. From breakfast through dinner, guests enjoy the rich, rustic flavors of France as well as healthy, family-friendly fare and warm service. The French theme carries throughout the restaurant but, up until recently, stopped short at the restaurant’s uniform program. Mimi’s Café was using a variety of suppliers, each contributing to a small part of the overall uniform picture. Not only was the uniform look lacking cohesion, the program was difficult for the chain to manage.

Mimi’s had embarked on an all-encompassing rebranding effort and, in the process, found that off-the-shelf apparel and accessories didn’t quite meet its needs. Mimi’s turned to Clipper Corp., whom it already relied upon for smallwares needs, to develop a customized solution. Briana Earl, account executive at Clipper Corp., explains, “Mimi’s was kind of a unique situation for us in that they didn’t have a real uniform spin.”

Clipper created custom pieces for the chain, including a classic black bistro apron with a wide, chic waistband as well as a tie printed with custom artwork. Clipper included crisp button-downs and flattering blouses for management, available in ten colors. The choice of colors, explains Earl, “allows the managers to have an individual style.” Back-of-the-house employees were outfitted in sophisticated cook shirts, customized chef coats and cheeky houndstooth chef pants.

Clipper Corp. also implemented an online ordering system that enables stores to log in and purchase uniforms. This system allows Mimi’s Café to effectively and efficiently manage its uniform program.

Why we like it …

Clipper Corp. was able to put together a uniform program using a combination of off-the-shelf, classic pieces and custom pieces to create an effortlessly stylish look with positively French flair. The online ordering system makes for a “hands-off uniform program that sort of runs itself,” says Earl. C’est si bon!

Winner: Clipper Corp.
Award: Uniform Program Innovation for Chinese Gourmet Express

The typical mall food court is a tough place to set up shop, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Restaurants fight for business side by side, and as ovens and cooktops heat up for the day, so does the competition. Some restaurant owners lure in customers with free samples or the wafting scent of freshly baked cinnamon buns, but for food court favorite Chinese Gourmet Express, a revamped uniform program was the key to success.

“We don’t want to look like everyone else in the food court,” says Sam Sim, owner of Chinese Gourmet Express. This nationwide chain of quick-service Chinese food restaurants is dedicated to making great, fresh food at an affordable price. Sim and his wife, Monica, use authentic Chinese recipes inspired by provinces throughout China, and patrons appreciate the authenticity of the food – a rarity in the mall food court.

While the vibrant, delicious food at Chinese Gourmet Express certainly stood out in a sea of food court fare, the employees’ uniforms were falling flat. Their standard-issue, off-the-shelf polos wrinkled easily, faded and looked unflattering, especially on female employees. Clipper Corp. came to the rescue, revitalizing the uniform look with high-tech performance polos, which, as Earl of Clipper Corp. puts it, “last twice as long and look ten times better!” Unisex sizes were replaced by flattering, gender-specific cuts. Managers were assigned unique colors, helping contribute to this quick-service restaurant’s efficiency and professional appearance. Clipper Corp. also included a hat in the program to give employees an extra splash of style.

Why we like it …

Clipper Corp. made a few key changes to the uniform for Chinese Gourmet Express, but these small changes had a significant impact on the company’s overall image. Clipper Corp. helped a small, family-owned chain compete with huge fast-food companies, a feat that’s certainly worthy of recognition.

Winner: Medelita
Award: Product Innovation for Dental Lab Coat

For many people, trips to the dentist are unpleasant enough. Between the scraping, drilling, poking and prodding, dental appointments can start to feel like a violation of personal space. Now imagine, on top of it, the sleeve of the dentist’s lab coat ending up in the patient’s mouth each time he reaches in for a pass of the scraper or that said sleeve is covered in stains. Clearly dentists have a need for a special type of lab coat, but up until recently, nothing of the sort existed. Medelita sought to change that with its dental lab coats, the Elsie G. for women and the Fauchard for men.

Medelita is well known for its hand-sewn medical lab coats, which are fully loaded with premium features and receive rave reviews for their luxurious feel and performance. Yet when Medelita attended a recent annual meeting of the California Dental Association in San Francisco, the rave reviews were mixed with pleas for something different. Joe Francisco, CEO of Medelita, explains, “The dentists were just loving our coats. But they said, ‘You know what? Nobody in this entire industry makes anything that we need. All the lab coats have these open cuffs, they don’t button to the neck, and they don’t give me full closure.’”

Medelita got right to work creating the Elsie G. and the Fauchard, named after Elsie Gerlach, a pioneer in the field of pediatric dentistry, and Pierre Fauchard, who is often referred to as the father of modern dentistry. The most notable feature of these coats is the knit cuffs, which keep sleeves out of patients’ mouths. They are made from 100 percent cotton treated with DuPont Advanced Dual Action Teflon, which repels the stains and fluids that are part and parcel of dental work. The ergonomic design, says Francisco, “allows you to lean forward and perform procedures on a patient’s mouth without it pulling.”

Why we like it …

Medelita combined the best-loved features of its medical lab coats with the features most requested by dental professionals. The result is a truly elegant lab coat that is sure to impress dentists on both an aesthetic and technical level.

Winner: Elbeco
Award: Product Innovation for V1 TexTrop External Vest Carrier

Police work is quite complex. Police officers are expected to be physically capable as well as quick-thinking and psychologically adept. They must appear authoritative to those who challenge the law, yet non-threatening to the innocent people whom they protect. Those who outfit police officers take these unique challenges into account when designing uniform apparel, balancing performance with professional appearance. So when ballistic vests threatened to compromise this delicate balance, Elbeco created the V1 TexTrop External Vest Carrier.

Ballistic vests are, without a doubt, a necessity for law enforcement officers. Yet for some departments, the look of a ballistic vest worn over a uniform shirt can be overly tactical and somewhat threatening to members of the community. In addition, wearing a ballistic vest under a uniform shirt can feel hot and uncomfortable. Elbeco presented a completely unique spin on the vest carrier with the V1. Whereas other carriers offer a tactical, SWAT team-type look, the V1 is designed to blend in seamlessly with an officer’s uniform shirt and is available in most standard uniform shirt colors.

When designing the V1, Elbeco consulted extensively with law enforcement officers and chiefs of police, soliciting their input and feedback throughout the process. J.D. Devine, director of sales and business development for Elbeco, explains the concerns that officers expressed: “First and foremost, everyone involved wanted to be certain that officer safety was not compromised in any way. The officers wanted assurance from their protective vest manufacturers that our product would not invalidate any warranty claims.” Elbeco was able to deliver this assurance; all major vest manufacturers provided confirmation that the V1 does not invalidate warranty claims. It maintains the integrity of the strength of the vest while adding more comfortable, unobtrusive design.

Why we like it …

When it comes to police uniforms, officer safety should always come first. Elbeco’s V1 TexTrop External Vest Carrier allows all officers to wear a ballistic vest comfortably and discreetly, helping keep them safe without creating an overly tactical look. When officers are able to maintain their professional appearance without compromising their safety, they’re more likely to wear their protective gear and wear it properly.

Winner: Perfection Uniforms
Award: Eco-friendly Product for Bionic Garment Construction

Just how technologically advanced can one police uniform be? Perfection Uniforms is on a mission to find out. The perpetual UNIVATOR award winner and truly perfection-driven uniform manufacturer is raising the bar and lowering temperatures with its new Bionic Garment Construction technology.

The new technology improves upon Perfection’s first generation of construction technology, Ergonomic Garment Construction. This technology swapped seams for hidden gussets in the high-stress underarm and crotch areas, allowing for maximum freedom of movement and eliminating the pulling, tearing and stress that can occur along seams and cause the untimely demise of a garment. Bionic Garment Construction takes these gussets and raises them an added element of comfort in the form of ThermoCool, a natural thermo-regulation fiber technology.

ThermoCool uses a combination of hollow-core fibers and fibers featuring a multi-channel surface. The multi-channel surface allows moisture to evaporate. Hollow fibers allow air to circulate and provide greater energy for the evaporation process. The hollow areas also exhibit thermo-buffering properties, protecting the skin from sudden temperature changes and helping to maintain consistent comfort. Because ThermoCool’s advantage is its unique fiber structure, it does not rely on chemical treatments, and its thermo-regulating properties will last throughout the life of the garment.

Perfection Uniforms wanted to incorporate ThermoCool technology into its StratusSeries line of high-performance poly/rayon blend uniforms but didn’t want to pass along a higher cost to distributors and end users. Miranda Brock, marketing manager at Perfection, explains, “We could have made the entire garment with ThermoCool, but based on research and from a price standpoint, it makes sense for it to be in the gussets, which correspond to areas of the body that would most benefit from temperature regulation.”

Why we like it …

Perfection Uniforms saw a way to improve upon its already impressive Ergonomic Garment Construction with the new Bionic Garment Construction and incorporated the ThermoCool technology into the areas that need it most. The result is a high-performing yet affordable line of uniforms and a sixth consecutive UNIVATOR award for Perfection Uniforms.

Winner: Century Place
Award: Eco-friendly Product for Century Place Eco-friendly Collection

Mike Carter was working as president of Century Place – a large, vertically integrated manufacturer and distributor that produces enough fabric each week to make 700,000 shirts – but that didn’t make him impervious to the unsolicited business advice of his 12-year-old son. “In the school systems now, the kids are really being taught about being conservative and eco-friendly and about the environment,” explains Carter. “He was 12 and he asked me, ‘What are you doing for the environment in terms of your product?’ I started thinking about that.”

Carter became inspired to create an eco-friendly line of T-shirts and polos for Century Place, but at the time, in 2008, the readily available options weren’t as green as he would have liked. “There were organic options or sustainable products like bamboo, but it requires a lot of energy to produce these things and a lot of resources. I felt that it wasn’t truly green,” he says. He chose to use polyester made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled PET containers, like the plastic bottles and food containers that pervade everyday life. Each shirt keeps the equivalent of about 32 water bottles out of landfills.

Because there wasn’t yet an established supply chain for what he wanted to produce, he created his own. He assessed the products and services of various suppliers until he achieved a 100 percent recycled shirt with a cotton-type soft hand and durable quality. He chose not to raise prices and says that the response from customers has been “slow but steady.” Customers hadn’t asked for an eco-friendly product, but the quality, feel and price point are helping them cozy up to the idea. “If the business owner doesn’t offer [eco-friendly products], the consumer won’t ask for it. The business owners have to take the initiative and make the decision to move forward and offer it. It has to start with the suppliers,” says Carter.

Since introducing the eco-friendly line in January 2010, Century Place has seen significant growth, and although Carter anticipates further growth in 2012, it’s his passion for the environment that now truly motivates him. He says, “This is more than just another line for me. I really believe in this. It’s the first time I’ve been able to offer something that truly helps our environment. The more we do, the more we can make a difference.”

Why we like it …

With so many companies using eco-friendly claims as mere selling points, it’s refreshing to see a company with a true dedication to the environment. Century Place’s story also serves as inspiration to other companies looking to clean up their act.