Reopening restaurant owners call Kentucky’s ban on table linens ‘wasteful’

With Kentucky restaurants preparing to reopen their dining rooms at limited capacity on Friday, one staple of the fine dining experience will be notably absent — tablecloths and cloth napkins.

The state’s new requirements for restaurants, which can open at one-third capacity on Friday, explicitly say that the use of table linens should be discontinued. Instead, restaurants are being told to use disposable napkins and tablecloths “to the greatest extent practicable.”

That’s unusual. 

States around the country are laying out guidelines for reopening businesses safely. But so far, Kentucky appears to be the only state in the country that is whipping tablecloths out from under restaurateurs. 

No other state is recommending against table linen use entirely, according to the Textile Rental Services Association, which lobbies on behalf of companies that supply professionally laundered linens.

“We just think that it’s wasteful and it’s unnecessary,” association President Joe Ricci told The Courier Journal, “and draconian in some ways in the sense that these restaurants already have access to all these reusable products and now they can’t use them.” 

Asked Tuesday about the table linen ban, Gov. Andy Beshear called the guidance “incredibly important,” but said he was open to suggestions on how to use tablecloths safely. 

“You can’t sit down at a table without touching the table,” Beshear told reporters. “It’s almost impossible. The next person who comes up can get the virus from that.” 

John Varanese, owner of his namesake restaurant Varanese, the River House Restaurant and Raw Bar and Levee at the River House, says that’s not quite right. 

As they are at most fine dining establishments, tablecloths at his restaurants are replaced after each guest leaves. The used linens are then bagged and sent off to be washed at a large third-party plant that also serves, among other customers, hospitals and medical facilities.

“If their product can be safe enough to be put in there, I don’t know why it’s not safe enough to put in restaurants,” Varanese told The Courier Journal.

Varanese’s linen provider, Louisville-based Universal Linen, said about a quarter of the company’s business comes from medical facilities. It neutralizes bacteria by the use of high temperatures at multiple stages in its industrial-grade cleaning process,  CEO Tom Austin said. The cleaned linens are wrapped in clear plastic and heat-sealed, then transported in trucks that are sanitized daily.

“We think public health officials are doing a good job of informing Kentuckians of what’s going on in the state,” Austin told The Courier Journal. “We just want them to know that table linens and napkins are a safe, hygienic, clean and sanitary solution to protect patrons in restaurants.” 

Austin’s family-owned business can trace its roots in Louisville to 1896. In ordinary times, Universal Linen employs 220 people across facilities in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee, Austin said. Every week they wash an average of 290,000 pounds of table linens, medical and lodging linens and uniforms. 

Most of that operation has ground to a halt during the pandemic. With many elective surgeries on hold and the hospitality industry in tatters, Universal Linen workers are on furlough.

For now, Varanese is interpreting the state’s use of the word “should” in its requirements to mean that table linens aren’t banned outright. But Stacy Roof, president and CEO of the Kentucky Restaurant Association, said she’s asking the state for the language on table linens to be removed or clarified as a recommendation.

“Our members really know their establishments,” Roof told The Courier Journal. “We feel like they should have the ability to decide what’s best in the situation.”

For some that could mean finding a disposable option that is also elegant.

Anne Shadle, general manager and co-owner of Mayan Cafe in NuLu, which doesn’t plan to reopen for carryout until May 28, said she’s looking into finding black paper napkins to match her restaurant’s dining room. After all, tables are just the backdrop, she said.

“Most of the attention needs to be put on having good quality food,” Shadle told The Courier Journal. “If you don’t have that, at this point, you don’t have much else because we’re taking away all of the other elements.”

Reach reporter Alfred Miller at amiller@gannett.com or 502-582-7142. Follow him on Twitter @AlfredFMiller.

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