New Consumer Model May End Paper Towels for Good—and Help Restaurants

When everything can be sold as a service, why not kitchen linens? This revolutionary approach may change up an age-old industry.

By Vanessa McGrady

Our dining experience takes into account food, service, and the ambiance of the room, including the quality of the linens. Although you may not hear about napkins in a restaurant review, renting kitchen towels, napkins, tablecloths, and aprons is a core part of any restaurant’s operation—and it’s fraught with issues.

Matt Ford, executive chef of Dallas’ Billy Can Can, which he describes as a “modern Texas saloon,” says that the standard model for the linen business is a long contract for (usually) polyester pieces, priced on the restaurant’s maximum occupancy.

“Even if you don’t use it all, you still have to pay the same amount, and [the contract] is hard to get out of,” Ford says. These contracts are often for a five-year period, even if they appear to be more flexible upon first read.

Most linen companies operate with the same rental model: deliver clean, folded linens, and haul away the dirty ones each week. Because restaurants normally don’t have the capacity to clean and manage their own linens, they find themselves trapped and without enough leverage to negotiate prices and pieces according to actual use—and there’s always a surcharge if you need more linens for an exceptionally busy time. “It’s outrageously frustrating,” says Ford.

What’s worse, Ford couldn’t even find someone to supply the all-cotton materials he actually wanted. “We put all this thought and effort into getting local organic products and having high-end drinks and beverages here in the bar, but yet we’re using really poor quality, crappy, commodity linen that all of our guests are touching. That makes just no sense to us whatsoever.”

Fortunately, Ford found a solution that’s economical, practical, and environmentally sustainable—for businesses and home kitchens alike.

A New Solution Comes to the Table

Enter Alt Linen, a progressive startup poised to disrupt the paper-goods and linen industries. Here’s how it works: home consumers buy pristine, white, 100-percent cotton kitchen towels (sold in sets of four, six, and 12) or napkins intended to eclipse the use of paper products in their homes. When the cloths are too stained or damaged to keep using, Alt Linen will send replacements for life at no cost, save for a small $6 shipping fee. Those old linens then go through a rigorous yet environmentally gentle cleaning and disinfection process, and are upcycled to work in commercial kitchens and go on restaurant tables. Six kitchen towels cost consumers $40; four napkins are $36 (comparatively, a set of three Martha Stewart dishtowels costs $29).

Then it gets really good for the restaurants: With Alt Linen, they’re able to get a superior cotton product for less per piece without a contract. Ford says he was paying $500 to $600 per week to rent the polyester linens; with Alt Linen, he’s cut that cost in half. Through an app, the restaurant can order exactly how many products it needs for that week—there are no inflexible contracts involved. If there’s an unexpected surge in business, the restaurants can also order more without a surcharge. They pay for only what they need. Ford was one of the first to sign on, and he’s thrilled. “It’s been nothing but smiles and high fives and thumbs-ups,” he says. The flexibility is especially important during the uncertainty of pandemic closures and tentative reopenings.

As for restaurants, so far about 40 have signed up, with another 35 or so in the queue as soon as Alt Linen can scale up their labor and operations. Currently, the start-up can only accommodate restaurants within the Dallas area.

Genius Blooms Under Pressure

Six years ago, Alt Linen was barely a glimmer in the eye of its founders. Partha Raghunathan, 48, and Madhu Rajendran, 49, had met working in IT in Dallas and had turned their mutual love of Indian textiles into a fair-trade artisanal online retail operation called Bloom & Give, which funds education for Indian girls.

The third Alt Linen partner is Eric Katzenberger, 33, a farmer who supplies micro-herbs to top restaurants in Dallas. Rajendran says: “We met socially, and we had such instant chemistry that we started hanging out. We’d cook meals in our warehouse kitchen, and he’d bring his chef friends over. And, really, our first exposure to the restaurant linen industry led us to believe that there is a disruption here, ready to happen. Ours is not a story of breakthrough technology but rather taking technology and breaking through this legacy industry status quo that entraps restaurateurs in lopsided contracts.”

“Ours is not a story of breakthrough technology but rather taking technology and breaking through this legacy industry status quo that entraps restaurateurs in lopsided contracts.”

–Eric Katzenberger, Farmer and Partner, Alt Linen

“We knew that we had a really good kitchen and tabletop concept through Madhu’s designs [at Bloom & Give], and we were doing pretty well in that category. We felt that if we could add a business model that serviced restaurants then we could give them a much better cotton product coupled with great service and no contract—a kinder linen company, if you will,” Raghunathan adds.

In the fall of 2019, Alt Linen was born, with the trio working out the most environmentally gentle way to use enzymes, detergents, and chemicals to remove stains. Katzenberger became the chemist in the group. “We got about 15 to 20 napkins every morning, and we created stains that we thought were the most possible to come through a restaurant. We labeled each napkin and we numbered them. Napkin 1 got a lipstick stain. Napkin 2 got a curry stain. Napkin 3 got a ketchup stain. Napkin 4 got a wine stain,” he says. They fussed with water temperature, vinegar, borax, and detergents and bleach, when necessary, until they got it right.

A Global Pandemic Forces the Issue

Meanwhile, people in the United States were going nuts pandemic-panic purchasing their paper products. “During COVID, a lot of our friends couldn’t get any paper towels because Amazon was sold out, and all the local department stores were limiting one per person. Coupled with the fact that a lot of people were staying at home and cooking, it created this need for championing the case of the cotton kitchen towel,” Raghunathan says.

“During COVID, a lot of our friends couldn’t get any paper towels…Coupled with the fact that a lot of people were staying at home and cooking, it created this need for championing the case of the cotton kitchen towel.”

–Partha Raghunathan, Founder, Alt Linen

Alt Linen can upcycle 98 percent of what comes back from individuals, Raghunathan notes, adding that the shipping fee reduces the likelihood consumers will abuse the swapping-out feature. “We feel quite comfortable that this model can be profitable for us,” he says. “It is a big social experiment we’re doing, but the risks are pretty mitigated because of the fact that we are circling those linens back into restaurants, and that segment keeps growing for us.”

Raghunathan notes that cradle-to-grave environmentalism (managing a product’s impact over the course of its life) has been on the fringes for many years, but he feels more of a movement happening—and Alt Linen is just in time. “To me, this is the zero-waste movement that has quietly taken hold and put an intense spotlight on single-use items that pollute the planet. This is also in large part due to consumer brands making these choices more accessible and affordable by addressing that proverbial ‘last mile.’ We feel that right under our noses, in our kitchens, the paper towel is one of the most obvious culprits that eats up large amounts of natural resources and spits out waste, and Alt Linen is providing that last mile solution through the free replacement model and by redirecting consumer waste to commercial applications.”

Indeed, the impact could be dramatic as more consumers adopt a circular economy model. U.S. households, for instance, use half of the world’s paper towels, and cutting back on one roll per week adds up to about $80 savings a year. According to the Environmental Paper Network’s Paper Calculator, each year that adds up to preserving 24 million trees and avoiding 434 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions from decomposing in landfills.

Marketing Gets a Makeover

The trio is also taking a fresh look at how it markets and distributes its linens to home consumer kitchens, opting to strategically partner with ingredient-delivery services and gift subscriptions such as Ellen DeGeneres’ Be Kind box. “We don’t want to use the traditional forms of customer acquisition through online ads on Facebook and Google,” says Rajendran, “That way we can increase our scale of distribution in quantum leaps as opposed to through the traditional online ads.”

Still in its nascency, Alt Linen founders estimate that there are currently about 1,000 home customers signed up, with about another 75,000 to come from subscription box services and up to 20,000 through other retailers, such as boutiques, grocery stores, gift shops, cafes, and bookstores. “The conservative expectation for 2021 is 100,000 to 150,000 homes,” Raghunathan says. He projects that the typical home will ask for towel replacements every three months and napkins every four to six months, which will cycle 5,000 pieces or so through to the restaurants each month.

While it’s a little early to share the “lean” business’ overall financial details, Raghunathan says that the direct-to-consumer dishtowel sales have already proved profitable.

The Alt Linen founders can envision a day when paper towels in the home are rare—if not eliminated completely. “We feel like this is sort of a no-brainer,” says Raghunathan. “And we’re really excited about the prospect of taking all this inventory we have right now and cycling it back and getting paper towels out of the picture.”

Photo credit Hans Vivek / Unsplash