Customers look for certain ‘tells’ when it comes to cleanliness
A wave of fear washed over me as I read the headline of a friend’s Facebook post: “It’s a Sad Day for New York City Pizza.” One of New York City’s most famous pizzerias had been shuttered by the Department of Health. Since the DOH started rating cleanliness of pizzerias with a system of letter grades in 2015, every one of the city’s 24,000 restaurants has been on edge. Points are deducted for every infraction and the grade is proportionally adjusted. New Yorkers have a high tolerance for grit in our restaurants (we call it “character”), but that doesn’t mean we’ll tolerate unsanitary conditions.
One huge area of vulnerability is your bathroom. This is the cul-de-sac of your pizzeria. It’s the oft forgotten room that, although a necessity, is clearly not your primary concern. One of the cleanest bathrooms of any pizzeria in NYC belongs to Lombardi’s, where they inspect every bathroom hourly. There’s even a clipboard hanging on every door with the time and initials indicating each inspection. Not only does this keep the room in order, it tells your customers you’re on top of things. I’ve walked into many a pizzeria bathroom only to find water on the walls and wads of paper towel on the floor. Without consistent inspection, you’re asking for trouble. It also helps in keeping the bathroom well stocked with necessities. The last thing your customer wants to do is report that you’re out of toilet paper. And if I notice you’re out of soap, I’ll assume that none of your employees have been washing their hands properly. Do not leave anything to the imagination of your customers, as it will only lead to speculation that paints your pizzeria in a negative way.
If your pizzeria is designed with an open kitchen, you should assume that every customer has eyes on your cooks. Now that everybody is documenting the entirety of their restaurant visit on social media, there’s extra focus on the pizza-making process. One of my favorite pizzerias even has a livestream of their kitchen blasted onto screens in every dining room so customers can get a good view. It’s a great idea until one of the pizza makers forgets they’re on camera and gets caught licking their finger or tending to an itch they shouldn’t be scratching. Exposing your process for the benefit of the customer also means being mindful of new vulnerabilities.
Perhaps the most subversive challenger to pizzeria cleanliness is one that’s so dangerous because it’s hidden in plain sight. Those shakers of cheese, oregano, chili flakes, salt and pepper you have on your tables and at your counter are potential germ bombs. So many hands grab these things and they’re often the last thing I touch because I pick up my slice. And let’s not forget about what’s inside the shakers. I’d love to see dates marked on the sides to indicate when they’ve last been refilled. Otherwise, I’m just assuming they’re as old and stale as they look.
Even though the Department of Health has the power to fine you or shut down your business, the most critical eyes belong to your customers. Be mindful of what they can see and how they might interpret it.
Scott Wiener is the founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City and SliceOutHunger.org.