2011 November: JUDGING A BOOK BY ITS COVER

You’re sitting down for dinner when you realize you haven’t washed your hands in hours. You go to the restroom, wash your hands and reach for a paper towel. But there are none –– and no hand-dryer either. Now you’ve got that icky wet-hand feeling, and a few doubts about the place you’ve chosen for your meal. If there are no paper towels in the bathroom, then is the kitchen clean?

To a restaurant owner, this may seem like a giant leap. You know the kitchen’s fine –– it’s where you spend all your time and energy. But your customers can’t see your kitchen, and they likely haven’t read your health inspection reports that praise you for keeping everything ship-shape. They’re going to judge you based on what they see –– and that’s the bathroom and dining room.

Fortunately, keeping bathrooms clean is generally quick and easy. It takes diligence, and maybe a few tricks, but not much skill. Ben Nighswander,
co-owner (with his wife, Mandi) of B. Antonio’s Pizza in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says they are fanatical about bathroom cleanliness. The restaurant has their computers programmed to print out a reminder to check the bathrooms every hour. If the person who pulls the item off of the printer can’t attend to it, they post it along the food line as they would a ticket for an order. As soon as the food orders are handled, an employee checks the bathroom.

The short list of what they’re looking for is ensuring there are paper towels and soap in the bathroom and that there is no paper or other debris on the floor. Beyond those hourly checks, the restroom is checked by a manager or owner three to four times a day. Cleaning the restroom between shifts falls to servers as part of their side work, done after their shift ends but before they can leave. “It takes staying on top of it,” Nighswander says. “It takes checking on it seven to 10 times a day.”

If nothing else, having the health department visit for an inspection will force you to pay attention to the restroom. While most of the health inspector’s time is spent behind the scenes in kitchens, prep areas and food storage areas, health department regulations do have something to say about bathrooms. Regulations vary from state to state and even from county to county. But here’s one set of rules pertaining to bathrooms: in Central Virginia, the health department requires all restrooms, including those for employee use only, to be stocked with soap, toilet paper and some type of hand-drying device, including paper towels, a cloth towel that revolves or a hand-dryer. Customer restrooms have to be located in the public part of the restaurant, and must not be accessible through a kitchen.

Wherever your employees wash their hands, there must be a poster noting that they are required to do so after using the restroom and before touching food, Virginia regulations note.

Washington state regulations, also posted online, show similar requirements.

Restaurant owners say keeping the bathrooms clean is simply part of good customer service. Brendan Higgins, co-owner of The Upper Crust Pizzeria, with 20 locations in the Boston area and one in Washington, D.C., said his restaurants’ bathrooms are also checked hourly. The restaurants are open-concept, with the kitchen open to the dining room. Though the bathrooms are not open, too, he likes to think of them as an extension of the same concept. “Every hour or so, managers are supposed to go in and make sure there is no trash on the floor and that everything is fully stocked,” Higgins says. “Area managers also pop into our stores and, as part of that, they spot-check the bathrooms.”

Higgins notes that it’s tempting when you’re busy to ignore the bathrooms. But that always leads to trouble. “If you wait six to seven hours and go through the dinner rush, chances are there will be a mess in there,” Higgins says, and it takes more time to clean up a big mess than to keep up with it in the first place. “Use big dispensers for soap and paper towels, but still, don’t wait until it’s all out.”

As parents of small children, Nighswander recommends one
additional step for bathrooms: have a diaper-changing table, and make sure it is checked, cleaned and ready for use by parents. It can make a world of difference and get parents coming back for more pizza –– picking your restaurant over another because you’ve provided this convenience. “We opened the first restaurant before we had kids,” Nighswander says. “By the time we opened the second one, we had kids, and the restrooms became that much more important to us.”

Parents love a clean restroom

Pizza restaurants and their Italian counterparts are havens for parents bringing their tomato-sauce loving offspring for lunch or a night out on the town. As it so happens, those little people don’t go too long without needing a diaper change or a visit to the restroom. Parents are usually looking at the bathrooms with a critical eye – trying to figure out how to get in and out with a minimum of touching surfaces.

Julie Casey, Founder of MyKidsPlate.com and CEO of Radius Three Marketing LLC, has researched parents’ hot buttons when taking their kids out to eat. From the time she started her research in 2007, cleanliness of the bathrooms, and the restaurant overall, has been in the top 10, and since the recession hit, it’s been the number one factor in choosing a restaurant, she says. “Parents, most especially moms, will evaluate a restaurant’s kitchen or food based on the cleanliness of the restroom,” Casey says. “While to some that may not seem fair, the reality is that if a restroom is dirty, it means it’s not getting the attention it needs.”

Robyn Davis Sekula is a freelance writer in New Albany, Indiana.

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