Why restaurant owners fear the beard
Bushy. Trimmed. Duck Dynasty. Mutton-chop. Amish. Boxed. “There are some very funky beards out there,” says Tom Lewison, CEO of Wild Wing Cafe—and that’s an understatement.
Anyone with eyes has noticed the proliferation of beards in foodservice today, especially on any man younger than 35. The trend is causing the latest generation gap, with a cohort of men refusing to work anywhere they can’t sport a beard.
Meanwhile, their Gen X or baby boomer bosses feel forced to rewrite policies they followed back in the day, which demanded a clean-shaven look.
Mike Matter, a Bubbakoo's employee, was sent home to trim his beard after showing up with a bushier version.
“It’s a millennial thing. They love their beards,” says Paul Altero, co-founder of Bubbakoo’s Burritos. The attitude: “It’s fear the beard.”
A Generation X-er himself, he nonetheless gets the attraction, and grows a beard every year between January 1 into March, when he shaves it off. “My wife likes the way it looks, but she won’t kiss me. She’s not a fan of beards,” he says, but he follows his annual tradition anyway.
Why? “I’m devilishly handsome in a beard,” Altero says with a laugh.
‘A little bit alarming’
When it comes to his wait staff, however, beards pose a problem, and he recently welcomed back one of his employees from college but made him go home and trim his enormous beard before starting work.
“To me it’s a little bit of an alarming trend in the food business, because the way I grew up is clean shaven, beards unacceptable, we don’t wear beards because we’re handling food,” Altero says. He started Bubbakoo’s in 2008 with a written policy against facial hair.
“We tried to stay with it, but we had to change it,” he says. “It’s important to us that we’re with the times. You have to loosen up a little bit.”
The same goes for Lewison, CEO of the 41-store Wild Wing Cafe. He, too, grew up in the business. “I’m an old-school guy, and so facial hair was a no-no. Sideburns down to your earlobes at the most, maybe a moustache,” he recalls.
Now the dynamic has changed and “beards are hip,” but food safety remains a concern. “Things have changed so much but health department regulations haven’t,” Lewison says.
About 10 months ago they rewrote their policies and re-did their entire uniform program, to address everything from facial hair to tattoos. “This is not easy, because it’s a new thing. We’re keeping it lenient. Our policy is you can have facial hair, but you have to keep it maintained,” Lewison says.
Rob Miller is co-founder of Dangerous Man Brewing Co., where just about everybody, patron and server alike, wears a beard.
Are beard snoods ridiculous?
Here comes the ick factor, so anyone reading this story over lunch should stop. A much-publicized and often-refuted study by Quest Diagnostics found some of the bacteria in beards “are the kind of things that you find in feces.” (No word if the same is true of hair found on the head.)
Another fun fact: Men are six times more likely to shed hairs from the beard than the head because beard hairs are twice as dense, and because at any given time 30 percent of beard hairs are in the telogen, or resting stage, and thus shedding.
(This reporter cannot verify the accuracy of the above statement, also from the Quest Diagnostics study. However, since it uses words like ‘telogen,’ it must be true.)
Beard nets, also known as beard snoods, are an obvious remedy, and an executive at Lion Haircare & Disposables claims sales of beard snoods have seen a 32 percent uptick in the past three years.
In the real world, though, is anyone wearing a beard snood? “No,” Altero says flatly, even when he worked for Johnny Rockets for 10 years before starting Bubbakoo’s. “We tried it at Rockets. You’ll see them put it on for a couple hours and then it disappears.”
Why? “No. 1, they look absolutely ridiculous. No. 2, they’re not comfortable,” Altero says. “If you just keep it really trimmed, then it’s not different than the hair on your head.”
Lewison at first insists everyone on the food-prep line wears a beard net in his restaurants. Are they really doing so, this reporter probes, because many say they’re irritating.
Lewison pauses. “I’ll say yes,” he maintains with a laugh. But he doesn’t want anyone walking into his restaurant right now to check? “That’s right,” he says.
"Contemplating things is so much more poignant" with a beard, says Sam Holzinger, taproom manager at Dangerous Man Brewing.
Pondering the beard
Sam Holzinger, 28, is taproom manager at Dangerous Man Brewing Co. in Minneapolis, which demanded a visit because the bar’s logo features the likeness of the founder sporting what this reporter calls a Taliban-style beard—big, bushy and long.
The origin of the name is this, according to Holzinger: Rob Miller, the founder, attended a wedding and crashed on the couch of friends, sporting his crazy beard as he slept away. The friends’ young daughter came downstairs, saw him and started screaming. “Mom, Mom, there’s a dangerous man in the house.”
In other words, they really rock their beards here, and Holzinger is no exception, although he had recently trimmed its glory. “It was brutal, brutally big. When it started getting hot I had to get rid of it,” he says.
Holzinger started in foodservice when he was 15, and has had a beard “since the minute I could grow one.” He’d never work in a place where he couldn’t wear a beard, he says, nor has it been an issue because he tends to like independent places, not the corporate chains that might have stricter rules.
Like most people with beards, he has given them some thought. “There are good beards and there are bad beards,” Holzinger says.
“I don’t wear a beard out of fashion,” he adds, stroking his trimmed red-ish beard pensively. But with a beard, “contemplating things is so much more poignant.”
A line in the sand
Poignant or not, at least one foodservice executive refuses to cave. Jeff Linville, CEO of Taco John’s, was visiting some of his restaurants recently and saw a beaucoup of beards. “What’s going on? How did this come about?” he recalls thinking. “People had gotten together, franchisees and employees or whatever, and decided this was OK. I said, Hey, I’m going to buck this trend and it’s not,” so he directed his chief operating officer to draw a firm line in the sand against beards.
“I get the style, but in quick service guests have an expectation,” Linville says. “I cannot afford to have hair in food.” Customers can say they like beards “or whatever, but one hair in my food and I have a problem with your brand.”
Linville, with more than 30 years in the business, doesn’t much care if he’s out of step with the times. “After I’m retired and gone, you can do what you want. If you talk about food integrity, honestly in our business, we have a responsibility,” he vows.
Sounds like something to consider while stroking one’s beard.