Are your dirty bathrooms scaring customers away?

The bigger a city gets, the more small restaurants with great food and dirty bathrooms there are it seems. I noticed this phenomenom recently when visiting Kansas City from Wichita, Kansas. In Wichita, we have a shortage of independently owned, small, interesting restaurants. There are a load of chains here, and plenty of restaurants to choose from, but most independents are either simple Mexican, Chinese or burger joints.

I visit Kansas City quite often, and while it isn’t a huge metropolis like Chicago or New York, it does have it’s share of small, interesting, independent restaurants. The type of restaurants I like to eat at. To that point, Kansas City scores big. What I have noticed though, is a serious lack of cleanliness in these small restaurants. Bathrooms are normally smelly and not stocked. Furniture and fixtures are in disrepair, menus have food stuck on them, and glasses are often dirty. I’m not sure if it’s my poor luck or not, but I seem to have an easier time finding scary restaurants I’ll never go back to than truly impressive ones.

Its these experiences that have inspired me to write a blog about cleanliness. Cleanliness is an area of running a restaurant that is often ignored by small restaurant owners, but ranks very high in importance to customers. A small restaurant owner tends to spend as much or more time at their business as they do their home, and it leads them to sometimes overlook the cleanliness of their business as they would their home. While they don’t feel they live/work in filth, they do get complacent about every day tidying up and small project cleaning which tends to build up after time.

Bathrooms in particular get overlooked in small businesses. Paint gets old and dirty. Floors are mopped with the same mop used on the greasy restaurant floors. Mirrors are broken and never fixed. the hot water doesn’t work, and soap/towel dispensers aren’t kept full. Disinfectants are used regularly to clean toilets and sinks, and the bathroom ends up smelling like a porta-potty.

While you may see a bathroom as more of a necessity (and maybe a nuisance) than your customers, it’s their opinion of them that matters. They have to be able to make it out of your restaurant feeling clean enough to touch bread before putting it in their mouths. They’re the ones who don’t want to have to leave and go somewhere else if they have to do something in the bathroom that requires them to sit down.

One thing that independent restaurant owners can learn from chains, is how important it is to keep a clean bathroom. McDonalds has one person on every shift designated to keep the bathrooms clean. They make hourly forays into the bathrooms to clean up excess water. Mop up any “spills”. Replenish soap. Empty the trash. Make sure paper towel dispensers are full. They wipe down a dirty toilet if necessary, and basically do everything they can to make sure their customers know they will always have a clean, stocked restroom to use. Without having any studies to quote, I’ll bet a significant portion of McDonald’s business is gleaned from people who stop just because they know they can use the bathroom there. A very successful regional convenience store named Quiktrip also applies this philosophy. Their bathrooms are always clean, and they are rewarded with residual business from people stopping to use the bathroom. This policy builds respect from their customers, and a reputation as a clean, upstanding company.

You may feel I’m overstating the importance of cleanliness, but I assure you I’m not. I would suggest asking yourself all these questions on a daily basis, and take a hard look at how your business may be scaring away customers because it’s just too dirty.

Is there plenty of toilet paper in my bathrooms?
How about paper towels and soap?
Do my bathrooms smell?
Is there buildup on sinks or toilets?
Are the bathroom walls clean?
Are there holes in the walls or ceilings?
Are there missing tiles in the ceiling or on the floor?
Is anything in the bathroom broken?
Is there graffiti on walls or stalls?
When is the last time the bathroom has been painted?
Are the colors and finishes attractive?
Do my toilets and/or urinals leak?
Is there ever standing water on the floor?
Do the appropriate doors lock when they’re supposed to?
Do my bathrooms offer enough privacy for each individual in the bathroom?
How often do I have the bathrooms checked on?
Is there an employee on every shift assigned to keep the bathrooms clean and stocked?

Answering these questions and remedying the situation should provide you with bathrooms that even the pickiest customer will be satisfied with. Take pride in your bathroom’s cleanliness. Sure employees hate cleaning bathrooms, but it has to be done. If you have to, offer the person who cleans them each night a free meal. Do what it takes. Your efforts will be rewarded.

Brandon O’Dell
O’Dell Restaurant Consulting
Office: (888) 571-9068