When it comes to sanitation and store cleanliness, looks speak for themselves. Whether it’s the front counter, the forecourt or the restrooms, convenience store operators must monitor the message they are sending to customers.
“If you’re in this business and want to stay in this business your customer is going to tell you what their expectations are, and if you don’t meet those expectations they’re going to go somewhere else,” said Mike Thornbrugh, spokesman for QuikTrip, which operates 537 stores in nine states across the Midwest. “One of their expectations is having a clean store and a clean restroom. That’s an absolute must.”
Restrooms act as an indicator to customers about the quality of the store and the chain as a whole. With the industry’s growing presence in foodservice, a clean restroom can literally be the difference between a customer making a purchase or heading to the nearest restaurant.
Customers want to buy food at locations where they believe the food is prepared in clean surroundings, and a messy restroom calls overall cleanliness into question.
“If customers go in a c-store and the restroom is trashed or smelly or something they wouldn’t want to use, then they’re going to make assumptions about other parts of the convenience store they can’t see—whether it’s the kitchen or soft drinks, or maybe they’ll wonder if the products you sell may not be as fresh as possible,” said Brandon O’Dell, an independent restaurant consultant for O’Dell Restaurant Consulting.
When QuikTrip began its foodservice business, QT Kitchens, it began by asking what it needed to do to market a quality food program. “We think we’ve achieved that, but one of the ways we’ve achieved that is appearance—the store is clean, it’s well kept, and that pertains to the restroom as well,” Thornbrugh said. “People will judge you on the cleanliness of your store and restrooms, and if they’re not clean they won’t come back.”
Restrooms as a Destination
The general public also has become more conscious of food safety, noted Jere Matthews, vice president of operations for Rutter’s Farm Stores,which operates 56 stores in Pennsylvania. “Customer’s are more likely to purchase food from an establishment that is clean and provides a modern restroom than from an establishment that has a tiny, not so well kept facility.”
A restroom is often a destination at a c-store. “From my personal experience, it seems c-stores with clean bathrooms get more traffic. People stop at the c-store for the bathroom and purchase something while they’re there,” O’Dell noted.
Thornbrugh has seen this firsthand. The chain attracts a large number of commuters that specifically stop in to use the bathroom. Parents are another target group because they seek a clean restroom where they can take their young children. “When I’m at my kids’ soccer games or baseball games and you see some of the toddlers who need a restroom break, it’s interesting to hear a parent say, ‘hang on until we get to QuikTrip,’” he said. “So not only is it important for us, but the customers expect it.”
If you’re not doing a great job of keeping your restroom and store in tip-top shape, chances are the QSR down the street is, and will be happy to take your business. O’Dell noted that McDonald’s is one business that does a diligent job of tending to its restrooms. The hamburger chain has one person on every shift personally responsible for checking the restrooms on a set schedule to ensure they are stocked and clean.
“I think they’re rewarded with a lot of customers who wouldn’t go to a place without clean restrooms. A lot of elderly customers sometimes can’t go anywhere without a restroom whether it’s a restaurant or a c-store,” O’Dell said.
Rutter’s knows well the benefits of presenting a positive restroom experience. Several years ago, the chain made a strategic decision to upgrade a number of its existing restrooms with an upscale look, including designer floor and wall tiles to enhance the visual appeal. “(It’s) not the normal perception for a convenience store restroom,” Matthews said. “We have had an overwhelming positive response from our customers. We believe the redesigned restrooms have set us apart from the competition.”
Steps to Sanitation
QuikTrip, like McDonald’s, has a planned schedule for when restrooms are to be cleaned as well as the store itself. But, Thornbrugh said, that while having a cleaning schedule is important, that alone is not always sufficient—a chain’s employees also need to be ready to respond to various factors. For example, bad weather days can lead customers to track in mud or snow, or one day could see a huge influx in customers using the restroom, meaning more frequent cleaning and restocking could be necessary.
Rutter’s also uses a restroom cleaning checklist and requires employees to check the facilities restroom for any issues a minimum of two times per shift, and also to clean and correct any problems they might see when they themselves use the restroom. The chain also provides each store with a mobile cleaning device to make the cleaning process more efficient.
The restrooms at Rutter’s also have hands-free fixtures, which Matthews said have been well received by customers. What’s more, the chain provides a button in each restroom that a customer can press if they are unhappy with the condition of the restroom.
“When the button is pressed, a light illuminates behind the counter that is visible to employees. When an employee sees the light turn on, they are instructed to take action with regard to the restroom,” Matthews noted.
O’Dell strongly believes that checklists and cleaning schedules are the most important factor in restroom cleanliness. He advised chains to have a written standard for how often the restroom is cleaned and make the checklist visible to employees.
“Some business owners make the mistake of not designating a particular employee to the cleaning of the restroom. It’s something employees don’t want to do, so get the manager to schedule the cleaning. This way, there will be no argument between employees over who is responsible for each cleaning,” O’Dell said. “If they remove the potential for arguing away from the employees it’s more likely to get done.”
Developing a List
Just what should restroom checks involve? Employees should be checking supplies of toilet paper, soap and paper towels, as well as emptying trash cans and cleaning any wet spots on the floor. Sinks must be cleaned and the handles checked to ensure they are working. Equipment, such as hand driers, should also be tested regularly. Employees should also make sure the bathroom smells good and automatic air fresheners should be replaced if needed.
“Something a lot of owners fail on is making sure everything in the restroom works,” O’Dell said. “A broken hand drier alone can ruin a bathroom that is otherwise perfect. If everything else is stocked and ready to go, but the hand drier doesn’t work and they’re out of paper towels, then somebody can’t complete their hygiene ritual inside that restroom.”
Other factors to consider include the overall condition of the restroom. “If paint’s chipping off the wall or the floor is in disrepair, that defeats the purpo
se of cleaning the restroom,” O’Dell said. He also recommended that if employees use the same restroom as customers, to hang a sign reminding employees to wash their hands, not just for employees, but to reassure customers that employees are taking sanitary precautions. CSD