Meet the Minds Behind the Merch
Merch is definitely having a moment in Australia’s hospitality scene and purveyors of the good stuff, Worktones, are Buffet friends and neighbours. This month we catch up with the leaders behind some of the best in the bizness.By Molly Urquhart
Ever spot that Mortadella cap making the rounds on Instagram January 2021? Maybe the Allora hat or mustard-yellow Aperol-Spritz-illustrated tea towel? Our new bubble tea socks? All the work of our friends down the street, Worktones, specialists in bespoke workwear. For this month’s Back of House we questioned director Huw Bennett and retail and account manager Lauren Alexandra Ross about the perfect apron, working with Australia’s leading hospo teams on their uniforms, the Suez canal blockage and naturally, what’s for dinner. Read on.
Team, hello. Priorities first – what’s for dinner tonight? Lauren we know you’ve got a four-course something on the go.
Lauren Ross: Look, only one course tonight. I braised a couple of short ribs down yesterday with the usual suspects, for a ragu. Have not decided what pasta format yet, but I need to think about that for at least 3-4 hours.
Huw Bennett: Japanese, Enya Rushcutters Bay ~ it’s a family night regular and an absolute institution for good times.
Can you describe what Worktones is up to now? It began as uniforms for hospo, yes? But now it’s a bit more merchy?
HB: Still very much uniform focused, just with a clearer and more precise offering of ‘extras’ like bags, caps, socks, and tea towels.
LR: Uniforms and aprons are still very much top dog, that said we have definitely widened the scope of what's possible. No surprise this was a direct result of the last two years, businesses needed something else to talk about, we were no different.
Are uniforms usually the first or last thing restaurants think of?
HB: Hmmm. This depends on the individual and or the business. Best results come from forward thinkers but we make a bunch of aprons for those a little late to the party. We work on the idea that just like the best meal is made from the right ingredients, so too are uniforms from time and process.
LR: Hard 50/50 split. I wish people popped us at the top of the list more often. There is nothing worse than crushing someone's creative dream with a ‘lead time’ hammer.
If they’re the last for some people, does this stress trickle down into Worktones business? How, if at all, stressful are hospo openings? What’s the vibe like for you?
HB: Yeah but we’re good at finding solutions, every situation is unique and sometimes an opportunity comes quickly ~ we try and work with what we have whilst aiming for the best outcome.
LR: As Huw said, we definitely have a few tricks up our sleeve. Hospo openings will always tickle the stress glands, that’s unavoidable. However, the last two years have definitely made people/venues/groups a lot more patient and understanding of what's involved with getting the product from A to B. There is definitely a ‘willing to wait’ vibe out there at the moment. Which is nice. We want to make ‘things’ that are worth waiting for.
You’re well-connected with the best of the best in hospo around the country, you know what’s up. What is the most important part of an apron to a chef, have you discovered?
HB: Form and function. It’s what we do, and do well (I think). Dispense with the embellishment and go for the apron that will work for people.
LR: Please, do not forget the pocket for the sharpie. That said, it’s clear that the visual aesthetic is becoming more of a consideration. The market seems to be actively steering away from the ‘old faithful’ black polyester chefs apron. Yahoo.
What about those FOH?
HB: Colour, fun (and form and function). What’s better than being greeted by a well dressed and comfortable Maitre d’? Nothing exactly.
LR: People are definitely having a lot more fun with FOH. The NOMAD Melbourne uniform was a super interesting one to work on last year, both Rebecca and Jacqui were heavily involved from start to finish. Given we had a lot of time to work with we decided on custom S/S shirts for all staff (making their life a little easier) plus a pair of aprons (one for FOH and one for BOH) using an existing shape, amending pocket details, fabric and colour for each section. Ultimately giving them something completely unique, that meets their functional requirements.
How do you source all your different base products? Mugs, candles, tea towels — such variety!
LR: It’s a pretty organic process to be honest. Demand generally drives innovation around here, Diner Mugs for example have been huge this past year. But, most importantly, Sian who oversees our Design and Production is masterful at finding incredible suppliers.
Covid-19 would have affected your manufacturing. How, if so, did the supply unravel? Is it still an issue?
LR: I joined Huw/Worktones three weeks before the first lockdown in 2020. So I really haven't known manufacturing at this level without COVID being involved. Huw would probably have more of a polarising experience I'm sure. What I can say is, for the most part, things have been ‘fairly’ smooth. Freight is not without its complications at the best of times (‘large container ship blocks major shipping channel’). Most importantly, clients have been incredibly patient and understanding.
We recently made socks with you! Our first foray into merch! for those playing at home, could you talk us through the process for Worktones’ smiley lavender pair?
LR: We had been making socks for our clients for sometime and finally thought it was time for us to have a little foot flex. The lavender smiley socks (plus cap, tea towel and candle) were our way of acknowledging that the last two years were ‘a bit much’. We just wanted to put something visually soothing and positive out into the world. The RELAX collection was born.
HB: For our own merch, it’s been about exploring what we can do, and trying to showcase that to both our business clients and consumers. We have some really handy makers at our disposal and a bunch of fabrics, trims, artworks (the list goes on) that we’ve wanted to try out. We’re really focusing in on this for 2022, we’ll see what magic we can conjure this year.
LR: I was going to say ‘super organised chaos’...
Go on, what sells best?
HB: Aprons, all day everyday. Throw in caps also…
LR: Any and all olive aprons. Notable mention — the Mortadella Cap.
Lots of stuff happening up there! What’s next for Worktones?
LR: This is a big question. Hotels, new openings, old clients, new clients. Oh, and new Worktones product is absolutely confirmed. Does this answer the question? 2022 will be fun.
1. Best sandwich in Surry Hills:
HB: Loaded!!! Let’s say Good Ways Deli which is technically Redfern.
LR: If I must be restricted to the 2010 postcode it has to be Lucky Pickle. For someone who compartmentalises sandwiches, that was an incredibly tough question.
2. Best playlist to cook to:
HB: Changes daily, but for the most part it’s too embarrassing to mention.
LR: The CHEF soundtrack. Easy.
3. Necessary office snack:
HB: Proper Crisps, Salt and vinegar ~ stop it.
LR: I have a sweet tooth now courtesy of Huw Bennett: Tony's Chocolonely (salted pretzel), sliced Pink Lady apple is a big thing on Marshall Street. Chocolate covered pretzels, and around 2PM on Friday — Grifter Serpents Kiss and Philter Hazy Pale.
4. Predicted number 1 merch item for 2022:
HB: Tea Towels, hands down.
LR: Custom totes (wine/bottle bag).
5. Your 30 degree beverage of choice.
HB: Woof, cold beer. The colder the better, I’ll take a Philter Hazy Pale now thanks.
LR: My answer is in the snack section, BUT will absolutely throw a good old Chardonnay and a can of T.I.N.A into the mix.
Do you sell merch and you want everyone to know? Buffet can help you spread the word of your delicious things. Get in touch to talk about our strategy, photography or other content packages, or just to tell us how much you love our bubble tea socks.
Sign up to our newsletter for more food and non-food things.