Entrepreneurs

How Jerry Seinfeld's former chef is turning restaurants into runways

As New York Fashion Week kicks off this week, the next season's fashion must-haves will be on everyone's mind. But for the co-founders of Tilit, a fashion company for the hospitality industry, functionality is just as important as style.

The business was conceived when the husband and wife team of Alex McCrery and Jenny Goodman realized there was a need for more stylish wear in restaurants. Many chefs complained about pants that were too baggy and aprons that constantly rode up on the backs of their necks.

The duo officially launched Tilit in late 2012 and now create fashionable pieces for chefs, cooks, servers, which can be worn from day to night.

"We wanted to fill a void for stylish modern clothes in the hospitality industry," McCrery tells CNBC Make It.

McCrery, who has worked as a personal chef for comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and his wife Jenny Goodman, a former hostess, saw there was a need for more fashion-forward clothing for restaurant workers. Servers wore drab uniforms and chefs complained that their uniforms were outdated and dowdy.

The duo decided to create a line for industry workers that could be worn in and out of the kitchen.

"We saw that there was a void for stylish modern clothes for those in the hospitality industry," says McCrery.

He reached out to a clothing designer Whitney Pozgay who was working at Kate Spade at the time. The designer then put him in touch with a pattern maker, and the pattern maker put him in touch with a manufacturer. McCrery soon started to take online sewing classes and his wife enrolled at NYU Stern School of Business.

In 2012, they launched Tilit with a personal $30,000 investment. Shortly thereafter, they received a $100,000 grant from J.P. Morgan Chase.

At the start of their business, the two were still working their respective 9-5 jobs. Within months of launching, they both quit to focus on the company.

"If you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to 100 percent be an entrepreneur," says McCrery. In fact, he says that sales jumped once they both focused on the brand full-time.

Goodman adds that timing is everything. Tilit was launched at a time when people were becoming receptive to changing the standard look of a chef or a server, she says.

Restaurants and hotels spend millions of dollars on design and creating a "full concept," says McCrery, but then overlook what their employees are wearing.

A waitress delivers sushi orders at Masa Hibachi Steakhouse & Sushi in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Bill O'Leary | The Washington Post | Getty Images
A waitress delivers sushi orders at Masa Hibachi Steakhouse & Sushi in Silver Spring, Maryland.

However, he says, your staff's uniform should represent how you want patrons to view the business. A server's uniform, for example, is as much a part of a restaurant's ambience as the style of chairs or tables. In other words, the "strictly utilitarian uniform" is out, says McCrery.

Tilit's sales quadrupled within the first year they opened, says Goodman, and have grown 50 to 100 percent every year. This year, she projects that sales will increase by 75 percent and they owe it all to their customers who keep coming back for more. Notably, the company declined to give additional financial details.

Goodman says that they have a heavy "customer service attitude" at Tilit and have "incorporated customer input into their design process" as well as feedback on new products.

Tilit wrap apron.
Tilit wrap apron.

The company's shirts and coats now come with tabs that snap down apron straps. Why? Because they listened to chefs and cooks who complained that the aprons they were wearing kept riding up on the backs of their necks and caused chafing.

Chef pants were another problem for their clientele because they looked like pajamas, says Goodman. They created stretch pants for chefs with quirky leather pockets that have been well-received in the industry. In fact, their workwear can be seen in famed chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud's restaurants and the swanky members-only club SohoHouse.

Tilit chef pants
Tilit chef pants

Goodman says their pieces have reached such popularity for the following reasons: "They are stylish and innovative ... They are also very fashionable and functional."

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