Laundry: Hang to Dry

2009 August: Hang to DryFor some pizza restaurant operators — such as those who use front and center items like table linens or who have extremely high-volume locations — whether or not to do the laundry in-house or use a laundry service is a no-brainer. In these instances the vote comes down squarely in favor of turning this aspect of operations over to the professionals. After all, your restaurant’s image will hardly be enhanced by stained tablecloths and napkins, nor will your day go more smoothly if you run out of these or other essentials like clean dish towels and aprons before closing.

But for other restaurant operators, particularly when the washables are confined to the back of the house only, the decision doesn’t seem so straightforward. For example, Michael Shepherd, owner/president of Michael Angelo’s Pizza, Inc., has been doing it on his own, discontinuing the laundry service around two years ago because of cost.

“The price was outrageous,” says Shepherd, who has a location in Kenton and in Rushsylvania, Ohio. “And with all the added surcharges, it just kept going up. The fuel surcharges were just getting astronomical.” Shepherd, in business for 12 years, has no front-of-house linens and washes only aprons, having switched to antimicrobial, semi-disposable dishtowels when he decided to take an in-house approach. He estimates he goes through 100 aprons weekly, washing these at home or at a nearby laundromat. Employees fold the aprons and put them away. He’s not entirely happy with having to cart laundry around several times a week and is looking at installing a washer and dryer on-site. Still, he plans to stay the course, calculating that doing it himself saves around $200 per month.

Ken Burger, owner of Cosmic Pizza, Inc. in Bozeman, did just the opposite. Like Shepherd, he has only back-of-house laundry to worry with. His first two years in business, Burger handled the washing of his dish towels and aprons, taking them home every other day. Five years ago he decided to hire a laundry service. “It took too much time,” he says, explaining why. “And I never seemed to have enough clean rags and aprons, and they never got clean enough.” Burger uses a regional laundry service and says the budget impact has been minimal. If he does the math, he reckons that compared to doing it on his own, the service costs him the equivalent of a pizza a week, or around $20. “It’s been a good move for me,” he says. “For me to spend less than $100 per month for my employees and my towels to look clean, it’s worth it.”

This should be a key consideration, says Arjun Senn, president of Restaurant Marketing Group, a Centennial, Colorado-based industry consulting company. “Guests are looking for consistency, and they notice every small element,” he says. “And while you might not get credit for clean, professionally laundered aprons and dish towels, you will surely lose points if they aren’t — this can have a very negative impact. It’s essential for your brand that your aprons, linens and dish towels be spotless.” It’s also an issue of hygiene and liability, Senn continues. And although inspection and health issues will vary by state, every restaurant operator thinking of undertaking this task in-house must also consider how/where they will store the dirty linens, the aroma changes that may occur when these are repeatedly stored in the same place, and how/where they will store and handle the chemical required for cleaning.

Joey Bramwell, director of operations for DoubleDave’s Pizzaworks, an Austin-based franchise operation with 51 locations primarily in Texas, shares these same concerns. The majority of their franchisees outsource the laundry, which consists of dish towels and aprons. However, says Bramwell, around five or six opt to do this in-house, strictly to save money.

Bramwell sympathizes with this desire. Still, the advantages of using a service are hard to argue, particularly the wash quality. “I like aprons to be perfectly clean and spotless,” he says, adding that this is hard to achieve consistently in-house. “There is also less of a health liability. If not laundered well, you end up using a semi-soiled towel because someone has overloaded the washer. Now you’re wiping down a table with something that is not clean.”

And on a few occasions, they’ve had fires break out as a result of inadequate cleaning, Bramwell adds. Greasy towels that didn’t get entirely clean in the wash have combusted when thrown into a dryer, he explains. They have also ignited when, hot from the dryer, the towels were bundled together in a bag. Add to this mix the resources required to do laundry in-house, such as equipment and hookups, and it’s easy to understand why Bramwell prefers outsourcing the laundry.

Although Senn suggests weighing the risks and rewards of both approaches, he clearly favors employing a laundry service. “You’re not in the business of doing laundry,” he explains. “You’re in the restaurant business. And after all the work you put into creating a positive experience for your customers, do you really want to diminish that experience, and your efforts, with this one weak link?” ?

Making Outsourcing Affordable

Chris Maddy, owner of Pizza Pete’s in Newport Beach, California, has only back-of-house laundry and does this himself, using a washer and dryer next door to his business. This is how it’s been done for 60 years, says Maddy, who bought the business five years ago. It’s so easy and inexpensive he sees no reason to change.

However, other do-it-yourselfers would like to hire this out but are deterred by costs. Striking a deal with a local laundry service may make this more affordable, says Senn. Partnering possibilities include mutual referrals, providing coupons for your restaurant to their customers, or cross- promoting. “Bring their message into your business,” Senn suggests. “For example, if you’re earth-friendly and so is the laundry service, promote this.”

But don’t sacrifice quality for a good deal, he warns. Be specific about your standards and requirements and whether they can meet these consistently.

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelancer specializing in writing on topics of interest to all manner of businesses. She is based in Long Beach, California.