On the first day of my very first job in food service I showed up in sandals. The owner chuckled, sent me home to change, and luckily didn’t fire me on the spot for making such a rookie mistake.
As I should have known, the first rule of restaurant footwear is no open-toed shoes.
The best restaurant shoes to get you through a shift will depend on whether you’re FOH, BOH, working a patio, prone to back problems, and more.
While options abound, one thing’s for certain: how you treat your feet is not a decision to be taken lightly when you work in a restaurant and are on your feet for hours and hours.
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Why Shoes Matter in a Restaurant
Anyone who’s worked restaurants can attest that you’ll traverse many miles and landmines throughout a typical shift. You needs shoes that can do the double duty of standing up to the elements and keeping you comfortable while being on your feet for hours on end.
Here’s why it's in your best interest to choose the best restaurant shoes possible:
Spills and Splatters
No matter how tight a ship your restaurant management runs, something is inevitably going to end up on the floor. Pair those lemon wedges, melted ice cubes, and grease slicks with a server balancing entrees for a four top and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
A recent study by Emory University found that food service workers “have a 60 percent higher rate of occupational injury than workers in other industries.” For both FOH and BOH workers, non-slip shoes are non-negotiable. In fact, if you don’t have a policy requiring non-slip shoes for your staff, institute one right away. Besides protecting your staff from injury, you’ll be protecting your business.
When you’re feverishly digging through dry storage or the walk-in to restock mid-shift, it’s easy to lose your grip and drop a heavy box or container on your feet. For BOH workers, hot oil and grease splashes are another hazard.
Most folks are aware of the danger of cutting or burning their hands, but dropped food in the kitchen can also burn legs and feet. To avoid a hospital trip for a broken toe or third degree burn, it’s essential to have sturdy shoes that can withstand a bit of impact.
Restaurant workers log long hours on their feet. One study found that servers on average clock 23,000 steps a day –that’s more than 10 miles!
Livestrong.com notes that for each mile walked, our feet bear 200,000 to 300,000 lbs of stress. For these reasons, arch support is critical.
Shoes that support the natural curve of our feet – as opposed to flat shoes like flip flops– not only improve comfort during long shifts but they prevent injury. Ankle sprains, ankle twists, and fallen arches can all result from undertaking strenuous activity without the proper support.
The Best Restaurant Shoes
Passionate opinions abound on the topic of which restaurant shoes rise to the top. This is a case where one size certainly does not fit all.
Here’s a round-up of the top picks from the restaurant workers we spoke to.
The Cult of the Clog
Ask a restaurant worker about their favorite footwear and clogs are likely to be towards the top of the list. Here are three that get high marks:
1) Dansko Clogs
Nordic-inspired, USA-based Dansko has a loyal following and for good reason. They’re a staple of many professionals not just in food service but in health care and retail industries as well. They offer great support, a little height, and come in an extensive variety of designs and styles. These qualities make Danskos not only great restaurant shoes, but great everyday shoes. Ann Dittrich, Creative Director for Dansko reveals that “more than 80 percent of our customers wear Danskos both on and off the job.” If you're going to invest in a pair of Danskos – and they are an investment, a basic pair will cost you $140 – make sure you're purchasing a slip-resistant model.
2) Birkenstock Clogs
“I’m partial to the Birkenstock clog,” says Grace Lichaa, a 10-year veteran of the food service industry in Boston. They don’t have a “heel like Danskos, are super comfy, and you can also take out the insert and wash them in the dishwasher. The polyurethane is more protective than leather for hot water and grease too.”
Grace reveals another important truth about restaurant shoes: they stink. The ability to clean the inserts is a huge perk. Bon Appetit magazine agrees. When they conducted a staff survey to find determine the best kitchen shoes, it was the Birkenstock London Hunter that rose to the top earning points for practicality, comfort, and style.
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3) Sanitas Clogs
Styled similarly to Danskos, Sanitas is another clog brand with a large fan base. “I live and die by my Sanitas,” says says Jessica Smith, manager at Streetcar wine shop in Boston. “[They] have a snugger fit than Dansko clogs so your foot doesn’t slosh around and they last much longer. My current pair are on their fourth year and – apart from my spilling paint all over them –are still in awesome shape!”
Folks prone to back issues noted Sanitas as their clear favorite. “I wore sneakers in college when I was waiting tables and it compressed my lumbar. When I switched to Sanitas, I regrew a 1/2 inch! I’ve been wearing them for over 10 years now. Also, I have wide feet so it’s nice to have options in their sizing,” says Leona Naiki, a baker and cheesemonger in Detroit.
Julia Hallman, manager at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also commented on the miracles Sanitas can work. “I have lower back problems so I love how well the Sanitas improve my posture. The heels never wear down so they feel as good as when I first bought them. Mine are five years old and going strong!”
In 2007, Crocs capitalized on their popularity among food service workers by debuting their Bistro Clog specifically for culinary professionals.
The line forgoes the porous design of original Crocs and offers slip-resistant treads, reinforced toes and the signature feature that made Crocs famous: cleanability. Crocs can be hosed down, soaked, and scrubbed like no other shoe a major advantage for those wading through grease and grime all shift long.
Not to be outdone by the clog cult, sneakers can also be a safe and practical to get you through a shift.
Gregg Ciccone, baker at (sway-rey) dessert bar in St. Petersburg, FL swears by “Hoka running shoes because they’re super comfortable and supportive.”
Sneakers are also a go-to for Mackenzie Jacobs, a catering server at Four Seam Hospitality in Sutton, NE. “They allow for full movement of your feet and are very comfortable,” she says.
Here are a few sneaker brands that have started slip-resistant lines for professionals.
2) Sketchers Non-Slip Work Shoes
Sketchers Work collection is perfect for sneaker fans who need a slip-resistant option that can support them for long shifts. They're also amazingly affordable, with styles ranging from classic sneakers to boots.
3) Vans 'Made for Makers' Shoe Line
Vans Made for Makers line is designed for "tough jobs, and the creative communities around them. Whether you're an artist, surfboard shaper, barber, or tattoo artist, Made For The Makers was built for maximum comfort so you can do what you love all day."
Styles include classics from the Vans catalog, including the ubiquitous SK8-Hi hightop's, the Slip-On, and the Old-Skool, each equipped with a non-slip vulcanized lugged soles and a canvas upper that repels dirt and liquids.
4) Dr. Scholl's "Work" Slip-Resistant Shoe Line
Dr.Scholl's "Work" line is specifically made for professionals who spend hours on their feet, but don't want to compromise comfort or curb appeal for support and slip resistance.
The line offers customers a variety of styles – including clogs, lace-up sneakers, slip-on sneakers, Mary-Jane's, ballet flats, and even heeled wedges – that each offer the wearer a sturdy, durable shoe that protects from the elements and can be worn comfortably for hours on end.
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What Not to Wear
In the search for the perfect pair of restaurant shoes, knowing which shoes to avoid is equally important. Here’s a cheat sheet for which shoe types to steer clear of.
Exposed feet equals vulnerable feet. Besides making yourself vulnerable to injury, most establishments simply won’t allow them. (See rookie mistake above.) In some states, having exposed toes in a restaurant kitchen is against health code.
Ah, ballet flats. So chic, so trendy, so….flat. The lack of arch support is the number one offender here. Feeble protection of the toes and tops of your feet are close behind.
Boat shoes are supposed to be non-slip right? Well yes and no.
While many boat shoes are designed to prevent slips on deck, throw a greasy floor in the mix and it all goes out the window. Slick floors and boat shoes don’t mix. Additionally these casual shoes offer no arch support and have ample room for kitchen debris to get in.
The one exception here may be for those working the host stand. For everyone else on the floor, heels won’t get you far.
Ever heard of someone attempting to walk a half marathon in heels? There’s a reason you haven’t. You’ll be setting yourself up for painful cuts and calluses not to mention back and shoulder issues from the lack of support.
There are many ways to get burned working in a restaurant and wearing the wrong shoes is one of them. Investing in a quality pair will carry you through many-a-shift and pay dividends in the form of comfy and healthy feet.