2010 February: A Clean Sweep

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There are two things your customers hate: Trying to enjoy a good meal out and being surrounded by sticky seats, crumb-strewn floors and tables piled high with dirty dishes and trying to enjoy a good meal out; and being confronted with noisy bussers, odors from cleaning solutions and waitstaff sweeping under their feet.

That means your customers want clean surroundings — but they don’t want to be bugged by your cleaning efforts. Can these choosy diners have it both ways?

If you implement smart cleaning tactics, the answer is yes. “We’ve found that there is no more of the Pine Sol smell, there is no more of the thick, heavy mop coming out of the kitchen,” says Tom Kelley, managing partner of Concept Branding Group, a marketing consultancy that works mostly with the hospitality industry. “There are other ways to keep the dining area clean throughout the day.” We spoke with experts to give you the scoop on cleaning your restaurant without clearing out your customers.

Doing periodic deep cleanings before business hours will mean less fuss during dining times. Several times a month, Kevin Cohen, owner of three Eugene, Oregon-based restaurants –– two Bene! Gourmet Pizzas and one Bene! Food and Friends –– holds “cleaning parties” on a weekend morning. He chooses mornings because the light is good; after hours, it’s easy to miss messes. Every employee is assigned to a different section of the restaurant, and for two hours they scrub baseboards, wipe down lighting fixtures and clean other hard-to-reach and often overlooked items. That way, diners don’t have to look at sauce-spattered lampshades –– but they also don’t have to endure a major cleaning while they’re trying to eat.

Instead of making an all-out effort to clean your restaurant during dining hours, do it a little bit at a time to reduce the chance of bugging customers. “Once you get your big cleaning done, you just need to keep up with cleaning as a constant routine,” says Scott Anthony, who is a pizza industry marketing expert, owner of Fox’s Pizza Den in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania, and former member of the janitorial services industry. “I do think it’s good that the customers see you milling about cleaning and doing things. It gives them a good feeling about the restaurant.” For example, a busser or server might wipe down the glass dessert case, clean the checkout counter, or wipe a spatter off the wall in between other tasks so the cleaning situation doesn’t build up to emergency status during dining hours.

If your employees clean as part of their rounds, when they’re refilling water glasses, bringing more napkins, and chatting with customers, diners will see the cleaning as just another part of their pleasant dining experience. At Cohen’s restaurants, employees use a technique he calls ‘pre-bussing.’ “You are constantly, very quietly, very unobtrusively going around the restaurant removing plates as they become available,” says Cohen. “At the same time, you can refill glasses of water, soda, and so on. That way, you’re providing value-added service during the dining experience, since you should be out there visiting guests anyway.” Mingling cleaning with excellent service turns it from a customer-disturbing necessity into a positive business practice.

Your customers don’t want to smell bleach, ammonia, or other caustic smelling cleaning solutions while they’re trying to enjoy dinner. That’s why Anthony recommends restaurant owners ask their janitorial supplies distributors for neutral cleaners. “They do have some scented neutral cleaners, but I prefer the unscented,” he says. “There are too many people who are allergic to different things like perfumes.”

If you prefer cleaners with a scent, Kelley mentions that some janitorial supplies companies offer natural aromatherapy cleaners, which are a nice alternative to strong bleach smells in the dining room or restroom. To accentuate the Italian experience of a pizza restaurant, you can even find products scented with basil, rosemary, or mint.

How you clean can be as important as what you use when it comes to keeping odors to a minimum. Cohen uses a rag from a bucket of cleaning solution instead of a spray bottle so the smell is less likely to travel, and so customers won’t be hit with wayward spray.

Nothing turns off customers like walking into your lobby and slipping around on wet floors. Sure, they’re clean, but they don’t look nice and they’re a hazard to navigate. To get your floors clean minus the sloppy look, Anthony suggests wet mopping once and then — this is the secret — dry mopping twice. Also, be sure to wring out the wet mop well in between dippings so the floor is easier to dry. And then there are crumbs on the floor. “There is just no way, no matter how much you sweep during the dining period, to keep up with all the crumbs that are dropped,” says Cohen. “The most important thing is that the food is hot and fresh, the service is top notch, and all the dining surfaces and the service surfaces are as clean as possible.” If there’s a big food spill, however, Anthony recommends using a quiet sweeper to keep diner-disturbing noise to a minimum. And if your restaurant has hard floors, Kelley suggests using a Swiffer-type sweeper instead of what he calls a “big old ugly broom.”

Once you’ve come up with cleaning techniques that are less disturbing to diners, add them to the employee manual and train your employees in these methods. For example, Cohen recommends training employees to help each other with cleanup to minimize the impact on diners. “If you’re walking back to your section and crossing through other sections, and you see something that needs to be cleaned, you should help out,” he explains. “A team environment where you are looking out for these types of situations really helps a lot.”

In addition, if you teach your employees to see things from the customer’s point of view, they’ll be more sensitive to how diners perceive their cleaning efforts. “Reason with your employees on common sense,” says Anthony. “Say, ‘If you were dining, would you want somebody doing this? Would you want to be looking at this dirty table?’ Teach them to apply the Golden Rule.”

All of our experts agree that customers would rather see employees cleaning than have to feast their eyes on spilled food and crusty dishes. When you need to clean, keep it quiet, keep it unobtrusive, keep it value-added — and your customers can indeed have it both ways. ?

Linda Formichelli is a freelance writer and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cleaning. She lives in Concord, New Hampshire.