The Clothes Chefs Wear Outside the Kitchen
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If you’re thinking of outfitting your waitstaff in beige, forget it. Tilit Chef Goods cofounder Jenny Goodman recommends darker colors, while reminding you that beige gets mucked up very quickly unless, of course, you’re a baker working with flour.
Four years ago, Goodman and her husband, Alex McCrery, started Tilit––short for utility––with the goal of outfitting chefs, line cooks, waiters and bartenders in clothing that is both functional and fashionable. Now, they have a brisk online business that sells to restaurant workers around the world, while locally, they design custom uniforms for notable chefs like Seamus Mullen, Missy Robbins and Nina Clemente.
It all started when McCrery was a personal chef struggling to find clothes he could wear fluidly between the subway, work and the farmers’ market. He put his pencil to paper and began sketching while Goodman was earning her MBA at the NYU Stern School of Business. The journey from inspiration to realization was quick. Friends in the fashion industry connected them with a patternmaker, who directed them to a manufacturer in Midtown Manhattan that would do small batches of clothing, and the couple steadily and quietly built a reputation for custom clothes that chefs actually liked. Their mission (written on their clothing label) speaks to their roots: Eat Local. Wear Local!
Working together doesn’t seem to be an issue for the married couple who finish each other’s sentences. Theirs appears to be the perfect partnership. “It sort of was a natural progression,” Goodman says. “Alex had the idea, and we basically started talking about it, and then it came together.” With their complementary skills, it’s easy for them to split the workload, and, she says, “It hasn't been stressful.”
Positive word of mouth for Tilit has been integral for growing the business. Contra chef Jeremiah Stone was one of the first chefs to reach out, looking for custom aprons for him and his partner, Fabian von Hauske. McCrery tinkered with the design––different straps, leather details––and three years later, it’s still the brand’s number one seller. Today the apron is available in a washable, waxed cotton; denim; or twill; and a range of colors, although don’t expect anything too wild. “We stay very neutral,” McCrery says. “I feel it’s more utilitarian and more functional to be in the kitchen.”
One of their initial challenges was inventory. In the beginning, they weren’t willing to go big with their production, but when designs were successful, it meant an eight-week lead time to get more product. “To make 1,000 pairs of pants when you’ve only been open six months was scary,” McCrery says. But in 2015, that changed. The company received a large business grant from Chase Bank enabling them to build out their on-hand inventory and grow the business in a scalable fashion.
One look at the website now, and you’ll find styles that work in many environments: a butcher trench for rainy days, stretch-cotton pants for cycling and a cute two-pocket utility dress for Casual Friday at the office. One experiment that didn’t work quite as well? Shorts. “People liked it; they just didn't buy it,” McCrery says. Despite that hurdle, they pushed ahead, attempting to launch new styles every two weeks.
Chef Melissa King | Photo: Mimi Giboin
Currently, the Tilit staff of 13 (14 if you count Goodman and McCrery’s 9-week-old daughter, Maly) are busy working on multiple projects. The couple’s desire to move beyond the food and beverage space appears successful: Staff at the Ace Hotel are wearing Tilit, and soon The Standard Miami’s female workers will be sporting a custom skort jumper. They also just launched an apron with Texas ceramicist Keith Kreeger, and a custom print for a chef’s shirt is on the way for David and Anna Posey’s new restaurant, Elske, opening in Chicago this November. And Tilit will be the accessory of choice for the staff of Danny Meyer’s soon-to-reopen Union Square Cafe.
“We will literally do anything,” Goodman says of their custom work. Just not beige.
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