Wearing their hearts on a napkin

Server Sean Cox gets the Signature Series napkins ready for evening dining at The Westendorff.

As soon as Ginger Grimes saw Milliken’s Signature Stripe napkin, she knew she could sell it.

“Customers kept asking for something different,” says Grimes, a sales consultant for Alsco, the city’s leading restaurant laundry and supplier of uniforms, linens and mops.

Innovations are rare in the napkin sphere: For years, a chocolate brown napkin counted as the most interesting upgrade that Grimes had to offer. So she was sure restaurateurs would jump on the Signature Stripe, modeled after a farmhouse tea towel. And if they balked, she could point to its durability, extended dimensions and South Carolina provenance. “We knew it would take off,” she says.

Ironically, the Signature Stripe has proven so successful in Charleston since its late 2013 debut that it no longer qualifies as “something different.” The Fat Hen was the first area restaurant to adopt Signature Stripe napkins. Now, the same design graces tables at restaurants including Cannon Green, Leon’s Oyster Shop, 492, 82 Queen, Heritage, The Westendorff, Coleman Public House, Craftsmen Tap House, The Grocery and Indaco, which is featured in Milliken promotional materials. “Our customers ask us where they can buy them,” executive chef Michael Perez says in his testimonial.

The Signature Stripe comes in 17 colors, including gold, which has emerged as a local favorite. “I begged and begged for that one,” says Grimes, who noticed buyers were getting bored by the initial run of red, black and blue. “I love it.”

Charleston and San Francisco are currently the hotbeds of Signature Stripe popularity. But Grimes predicts the trend will spread from here, partly because the napkin frequently appears in photographs published by national magazines.

“Edmund’s Oast gets a lot of publicity with that napkin,” Grimes says. “Every time I see a picture of their food, I can see the napkin, and it’s awesome.”

Milliken & Company, which has been producing fabrics in Spartanburg since 1884, began developing the 100-percent polyester Signature Stripe napkin in response to restaurateurs setting their tables with cotton towels that weren’t designed for repeat trips through the wash. While the towels looked appealingly rustic, they had a tendency to slouch and fade.

“Cotton is really hard to take care of in a restaurant environment,” says Milliken spokeswoman Brenda Burris-Drake. “We have a specially selected stripe, so the color stays true. Another difference is dimensional stability, where the shape stays the same. Those are our big product advantages.”

A third advantage is size. Unlike standard square napkins, which measure 20 inches along each side, the Signature Stripe is cut as an 18-inch-by-22-inch rectangle. “We’ve heard it called a lapkin,” Milliken development manager Karen Stavrakas says.

Most importantly, though, the napkins make customers think of hot ovens and dinner bells. According to Burris-Drake, restaurants are looking for ways to convert customers who show up for after-work cocktails into dinner guests. “Home-type decor,” she says, can help keep people from heading home when they get hungry.

And just as the Signature Stripe napkins bring home into restaurants, they may soon help eaters bring restaurant culture into their homes.

“Indaco has talked about selling them like they sell T-shirts,” Blaine Maddin, Milliken’s laundry service team manager, says. “We’d love for them to do that.”