Over a decade ago, the Mike Judge movie Office Space eviscerated chain dining's penchant for pseudo-individuality in a few short minutes, thanks in large part to Jennifer Aniston. She's not the first person you'd point to as a beacon of counter-culture style, but that's why she was perfect for the scene, just a normal person working a normal job as a server in TGIF-equivalent Chotchkie's Restaurant, forced to dissect the quantity and quality of her "flair" — the buttons and patches the waitstaff was required to wear.
When confronted by a manager who thinks her self-expression is deficient, her character replies, "You know what, yeah, I do. I do want to express myself, okay. And I don't need 37 pieces of flair to do it."
And she's right. Servers can easily find ways to express their individuality without the assistance of bumper-sticker-like buttons — even when they're wearing uniforms.
At Cassis American Brasserie on St. Pete's, your eyes are immediately assailed by the mirrors and yellow lights along the walls, the checkerboard floor under your feet, the sheer action and vitality of the space. The waitstaff — despite being one of the reputedly best-looking group of servers around — kind of fades into the background. Black polo shirts and black pants are serious camouflage here. And, in the end, that's kind of the point.
"Uniforms are not meant to make them look bad, they're just meant to control," explains Cassis manager Elliot Gunther. "With no uniform you'll end up with bikini tops or big flowered dresses — no happy medium. Not everyone has the same style." Not fashion fascism, really, just a way to keep the staff looking neat and help customers know who's taking care of them.
Of course, Gunther — and the sheer cliff-face of his gently wavy pompadour — understands that mere clothes don't make the man. "[Servers] express themselves a lot through jewelry," he explains. "And definitely different hair positions."
("They're called styles!" chimes in a bartender with a laugh. Another glance at Gunther's mesmerizing pomp, and I'm pretty sure "positions" is exactly what he meant.)
Armed with this knowledge, I notice the subtle differences between the black-clad servers at Cassis. Here's a tiny blond with two bright pink bow-shaped plastic barrettes she might have grabbed from a tween's garage sale table. There are two guys with chin beards, one with a surfer necklace peeking out of the collar, the other with a more elaborate coif. A plastic gardenia tucked into some silky dark hair, feathered earrings, forearm tattoos: little touches that transform uniforms into individuals.
And as we learned in Office Space, telling servers to express themselves within a limited framework is a losing proposition.
"My first serving job was at Macaroni Grill, where we wore ties and they encouraged us to find the most outrageous and interesting ties we could," explains server Ashley Hutson. "I didn't find myself going too far out of my way to find interesting ties." No one likes corporate individuality mandates.
"I still remember when we had to wear school uniforms," remembers Hutson. "I was mad 'cause I couldn't show who I really was, but you find ways. It's cool here at Cassis because there's no strict confines on how you look — tattoos, different-colored hair — just needs to be clean and fresh."
For some servers, repressing individual style might be distasteful, or even impossible.
Tim Sainson — a server/bartender at Beak's Old Florida — has tattoos stretching from his knuckles to his neck. Not the easiest thing to keep covert no matter the uniform, and with a Beak's T-shirt his only requirement, ink is in full effect.
"I had my fingers done when I was 21 or 22, before I started serving," explains Sainson. "My point when I got them was that I wanted to make sure not to end up in a corporate job, or a job that couldn't accept the person I am." And it's worked just as planned. When he doesn't get a job because of his tattoos, he knows it's likely a place he wouldn't want to work, anyway. "If they hire me, they're like-minded people and I know I'll fit in," he says.
Sainson's style sense doesn't stop with his skin, however. From a bleach-blond faux-hawk to knee-high white athletic socks, he doesn't shy away from expressing himself. He's been known to spray-paint his shoes on a whim, and those blond locks vary with the seasons.
Does he ever regret the semi-permanent anti-corporate self-selection branded on his skin? "Here, it's tough to get a job, but in a major city, my tattoos disappear," Sainson admits. He's worked at five-star fine-dining restaurants in Chicago, where he was one of the most requested servers. But, still ...
"The only time I'm ever annoyed by my tattoos is when I don't have a job."