Photographs by Josh Keown
Customers are restaurants’ biggest allies and their harshest critics. They are not shy about expressing their joy, concern or displeasure with an eating establishment. The wilting plant in the corner, the dust on the ceiling fan or the empty paper towel bins in the bathroom are details easily overlooked by operators and staff.
But customers notice everything. When they see a dirty restaurant, they lose their appetite — and operators lose business.
“The cleanliness of the restaurant, small details — in the corners — reflects the cleanliness of the kitchen. This means everything,” says David Kincheloe, president of National Restaurant Consultants in Golden, Colorado.
Christopher Wells, founder of Restaurant Building Blocks, a restaurant management and training company, agrees that one negative can affect a customer’s impression of the entire restaurant.
“Your potential clients trust that you will provide them with a quality product that is safe for them,” Wells says. “If what they see tells them otherwise, it doesn’t matter how great you are with them, at that point you’ve tarnished the relationship.”
Alan Guinn, managing director and CEO of the Guinn Consultancy Group Inc. in Bristol, Tennessee, says dusty plants are just the beginning of overlooked areas that will draw the negative attention of customers.
“Menus that are sticky, have food between the pages, are worn, torn, or tattered offer the opportunity for you to not impress your guests even before they try your excellent cuisine. In most cases where guests are waiting for food or drinks to be served, their eyes immediately are drawn to the light fixtures. There is no excuse to have dusty light fixtures,” Guinn says. “HVAC and cold air returns naturally attract dust because the restaurant environment has micro particles of grease in the air which attach to these surfaces and act as an attractant to any dust in the air. The dust readily builds up and can spread across closely contingent ceiling surfaces.”
Kirk Mauriello, director of franchising for Aurelio’s Pizza, with locations in Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Georgia and Nevada, says other overlooked areas include window sills, trash cans inside the restaurant, the area around the hostess stand and overhead woodwork or decorations, otherwise known as dust collectors.
“The reception area needs to be spotless and organized. Are there tears, stains on benches, broken tiles (or) dirt in the threshold of the door? Front windows and doors need to be free of clutter and smudges. The tops of exposed beams are easily missed areas, Kincheloe says, and “parking lots are often overlooked. Walking up the sidewalk to the restaurant, is there trash lying around and cigarette butts? The back door of the restaurant is sometimes visible. Is there junk lying around, empty crates, boxes, old equipment?”
Wells also adds that chair legs are usually ignored and gum accumulates under the table.
“The floors are mopped, but corners are often overlooked and a dark gunk accumulates. Salt and pepper shakers are often sticky and gross as well as sugar and napkins if they are on the table,” Wells says.
Oddly, customers may decide whether a restaurant is clean not by eating in the dining room but by visiting the restroom.
“One of the first things customers comment on is the cleanliness of the bathrooms,” Mauriello says. Guinn agrees that restroom cleanliness is crucial to a customer’s assessment.
“Bathrooms are the most obvious ‘behind the scenes’ area that customers can visit in your restaurant, and the condition in which your bathrooms present to the customer directly mirrors the customers’ belief of the cleanliness of your kitchen,” Guinn says.
Laurel Roach, account executive of Commercial Janitorial, a commercial cleaning and maintenance company, says the most noticeable problems occur in the restrooms (the bases of toilet seats, walls, tile and grout lines).
Once areas are identified, operators need to act.
“Put cleaning tasks on a side work checklist for servers and kitchen staff to routinely clean. Hire a professional to periodically scrub tile and clean the carpets to keep things looking nice. Some tasks, such as scrubbing out the inside of an oven, cleaning a deep fryer or high dusting, really should be left to a professional,” Roach says.
Kincheloe says cleanliness is ultimately the responsibility of the manager/owner.
“They need to walk in the restaurant from the parking lot through the front door and observe. Sit in the far corners of the restaurant and look around ––top to bottom. Lists are nice and should be completed for communication and accountability of staff; they do not take the place of observation,” Kincheloe says.
Wells says the best system he’s seen is a list filled with weekly and monthly cleaning duties for each staff member to do in their free time. “They get each task signed by a manager when they are completed. Make this mandatory,” he says.
With a little help from technology, Aurelio’s Pizza is keeping on top of cleaning duties with their POS system. Installed for business purposes for credit cards and tracking data, the POS system also has time alerts to notify staff when the restrooms need cleaning.
“The system has a time calculation alert that says when something has to get done,” Mauriello says. “Our employees tend to get caught up in customer service when it’s busy, and when the restaurant is busy, the restrooms are used the most. It’s a great reminder system; it’s like a Google alert.”
Operators who need more elbow grease should consider enlisting professional help.
“Liability is a big reason to hire a professional cleaning company. An operator would be responsible if their staff member fell off of a 12-foot ladder doing the high dusting, or slipped when mopping the floor and hit their head,” Roach says. “When an employee is making a minimum serving wage, $4.75 per hour, it is probably asking a lot to require that they scrape gum off from underneath tables at the end of their shift. The quality of work is often poor or inconsistent. When hiring an outside vendor, an operator is able to hold someone accountable.”
DeAnn Owens is a freelance journalist living in Indianapolis. She specializes in features and human interest stories.
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