are you flushing profits down the toilet

Restrooms aren’t just another convenience for customers, especially as foodservice

When VERC Enterprises (Duxbury, MA) first started offering restrooms, all the facilities had exterior entrances. It wasn’t the most convenient set-up, but the 20-store chain felt they would work just fine—until a customer brought something unusual to the attention of the manager of one of VERC’s stores.

“Let’s just say a very enterprising young woman was running her own ‘business’ out of the restroom of our Plymouth store,” says Paul Vercollone, vice president of VERC Enterprises. “We had no idea until one evening a customer let us know what was going on and we shut her down.

“We work with Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway on revenue sharing, but we were notgoing to explore that with her,” he jokes. “But this was when our restroomentrances were outside—we had no idea.”

Shortly thereafter VERC began to explore the possibility of moving its restroomentrances inside the stores and realized it had to pay much closer attentionto that aspect of its operations.

Today VERC’s restrooms set its stores apart from its many competitors. For some operators, restrooms are simply another convenience to offer their customers, like an ATM or an air hose. But for others it’s a real point of differentiation—and a necessity for those that offer foodservice. According to the National Food Safety Education Month survey, 94% of consumers rated “clean restrooms” as the highest factor influencing their level of confidence in the safety of foods served by a restaurant. Of those surveyed, 77% said an unsanitary restroom would strongly affect their opinion of a restaurant’s overall food handling practices.

Standing out
For VERC Enterprises, offering restrooms is a requirementrather than an option. But Vercollone doesn’t see that as a detriment; he feelsit gives his stores an even greater opportunity to set themselves apart.

“It’s a requirement to have restrooms in Massachusetts if you offer foodservice,”he says. “That means a lot of people have them, but it also means there’s moreopportunities for businesses not to take care of them. The message we put toour associates is to make sure our restrooms are kept up because customers needto know they will consistently be met with clean facilities.

“I was traveling with a young child about 15 years ago, which is when we really started paying attention to our restrooms,” he continues. “I knew to look for a Mobil On The Run specifically because I knew they had a strong emphasis on clean restrooms. I didn’t need to make a separate stop at a restaurant or a fast-food establishment because I knew the Mobil brand paid attention to those things. We [as an industry] absolutely benefit from everyone doing a good job on it.”

As VERC sought to improve its facilities, it wasn’t afraid to employ technology to solve some of its challenges. Unfortunately, sometimes the chain had to change directions when technologies heightened those challenges instead of solving them.

“We implemented automatic faucets and lights because of the traffic our restroomswere getting,” says Vercollone. “One experiment that didn’t work for us waslowwatervolume flush toilets. They use less water, but the contraption insidethe toilet broke down just about every two months. They weren’t worth the headache,so we replaced them within a year of installing them.”

Open Pantry Food Marts of Wisconsin (Pleasant Prairie, WI) has put a new focus on its restrooms, fueled in part by a heavy investment in foodservice. The chain has developed its own gourmet sandwich line, and will soon launch its Open Pantry Sante Fe Grill for made-to-order burritos. But before it introduced any new food, the company wanted to firm up what it believes is the “groundwork” of a quality foodservice establishment: the restroom.

“Over the past year and a half we’ve become very passionate about our restrooms because we feel they go hand in hand with the foodservice side of our business,” says Jim Fiene, senior vice president of Open Pantry. “The foundation of food is having clean facilities that customers would prefer to frequent. If we want to grow in food, we need to set ourselves apart with our restrooms. We want to be known for cleanliness before we introduce new food.”

Open Pantry’s facilities are not the run-of-the-mill restrooms. Unlike the painted white cinder block walls found in many stores, Open Pantry’s walls mirror the company’s vibrant new color scheme. Newer locations feature marble walls with motion-sensitive sinks, toilets and paper-towel dispensers. The company has also added wall heaters to its restrooms to keep them warm and comfortable. With its recent acquisitions, the company has been upgrading from outdoor entryways to indoor—conversions that cost $12,000 per store—but Fiene feels the conversions complement other enhancements the chain has made to upgrade its image. So far, six of Open Pantry’s 30 stores have been completed, with another six in development.

“Moving the restrooms inside is a security feature for our employees and ourtarget customer: females,” says Fiene. “It’s easier, safer and more convenientfor them to use the restrooms inside than having to leave the building and gooutside. It also gives a true vision of the ambiance we’re trying to createinside the store as a food destination. If you go to a restaurant, they don’tmake you go outside to use the restroom, so we don’t want our customers to haveto do that either.”

In Charlottesville, VA, The Market has successfully separated itself from its c-store competitors by offering an upscale foodservice program with gourmet foods, hardwood floors and marble counters at four of its 13 stores. But to make its offer complete, the company made sure its restrooms matched its high-class fare.

“These stores have large, well-lit restrooms with marble vanities and silkplants,” says Paul Sisk, general manager of retail operations for The Market.”We sell a lot of hot dogs but also a lot of flank steak salad, and we havechefs on staff in all four of those stores. If we’re doing that, then we needto have the restrooms that meet the standard. As we renovate and build new stores,our restrooms will match with upscale and brightly lit interiors.”

Kevin Smartt’s foodservice program (see Effortless Eats, June ’05, p. 12) isn’t quite at the level of The Market’s, but he knows restrooms have a direct correlation to how customers view a food offer.

“In foodservice the most important thing is to have clean restrooms,” saysSmartt, president of Kwik Chek Convenience Stores (Bonham, TX). “If you go intoa restaurant and find a filthy restroom, you don’t want to eat there. Ultimately,clean restrooms drive foot traffic into our stores. I tell my group, you cansell some candy, smokes and pop, but we differentiate ourselves by offeringnice, big restrooms that are clean and well stocked.

“We even include our restrooms on our billboard advertising,” he continues. “Clean restrooms are our calling card. There was a study a few months back that looked at what the most important factors customers consider when choosing to shop in a c-store. Restrooms ranked No. 3. In terms of how often items were used in c-stores, restrooms ranked fifth from the bottom of about 20 items. So it doesn’t mean customers are using restrooms all the time, but it’s important that they’re always clean.”

Smartt pays a great deal of attention to customers’ comfort needs. Aside from independent company-run surveys, his stores often conduct their own inquiries. After installing handsfree sinks, urinals and commodes in his restrooms, Smartt investigated whether customers preferred hand towels or dryers.

“We looked at replacing our hand towels with hands-free units; most stores have a combination,” says Smartt. “We did a customer survey for what they preferred, a
nd most preferred hand towels, not so much for drying their hands but for opening the doors.”

Customers can be an obstacle
At times, offering clean restrooms is anuphill battle. Customers demand and remember nice facilities, but they are alsothe ones that can make it such a challenge.

Take Ben Scharfstein, for example. Since his store was built in 1982, the restroomsat his single One Stop Convenience Store (Johnson City, TN) have always hadoutdoor entrances. Because his store has pumps on both sides as well as a drive-thruwindow, he cannot offer inside restroom entrances. And, as the saying goes,out of sight…

“It’s frustrating that we can’t keep our facilities cleaner,” says Scharfstein. “We don’t have the latest tile work, but it’s still a nice facility. For the past 15 years we’ve worked just to maintain some sort of control over who goes in, but people just abuse them; they tear off the fixtures, destroy mirrors and dispensers. If [the entryways] were inside, I could keep better control.”

While Scharfstein wrestles with his restroom strategy, he still renovates and upgrades his store and his restrooms every couple of years. Most recently he added electronic locks to the restroom that are activated by the staff, which helps monitor traffic. He has also added pre-finished panels that make cleaning the restrooms easier on his staff.

Paul Mac doesn’t have much in common with Scharfstein when it comes to hisrestrooms’ appearance, but they share the same frustrations. As Mac readiesto open his second Chevron-branded store, he struggles with the costs of maintaininga nice facility while repairing the damage his customers sometimes inflict.

“One challenge is the customer abuse,” says Mac, owner of Mac Chevron in Calabasas, CA. “We have inside entrances, but they still graffiti the mirrors or scratch them, so I have to replace them every six months at a cost of $150 per mirror.”

Mac Chevron restrooms border on exquisite, featuring porcelain tiling— which has yet to be marred by graffiti—and granite-top sinks. They offer pull paper rather than paper towels, which are more absorbent yet less expensive. Along with personal touches like silk plants that hang from the ceiling, the store also provides toilet seat covers as an added convenience. But Mac’s biggest investments in the restrooms were made especially with his customers’ comfort in mind.

“We have fragrance dispensers that automatically release fragrance, and wealso invested in a high-power exhaust fan so that the room [maintains a freshsmell],” says Mac. “Our fan puts out 375 CFM (cubic feet per minute air change),which was about a $1,000 investment over a standard fan, but it was definitelyworth it.”

Keeping it clean
In addition to stemming customer abuse, one of the biggestchallenges retailers face with keeping their restrooms clean is getting employeesto buy in. Some, like VERC Enterprises, went so far as to hire a third-partycleaning crew to perform some heavier cleaning on top of the maintenance performedby associates and managers. The company discontinued the service after ninemonths, however, when it realized it could get the same results by having itsmidnight shift pick up the slack.

Others employ technology to make it easier for employees and to enhance customers confidence.

“All of our restrooms have [Restroom Needs Assistance] service lights,” says The Market’s Paul Sisk, adding that ExxonMobil let his company “steal” the idea. “A lot of times customers think it’s a light switch, but it’s there if something is wrong. The light signals the cashier, but our cashiers are not supposed to depend on the light. It helps us meet our customers’ immediate needs.”

And then there are companies like Martin & Bayley, parent of Huck’s Food & Fuel (Carmi, IL). Aside from the restrooms being a big focus for the company’s daily operations and shift checklists, district manager checklists, mystery shops, store tours and visits in general, Huck’s makes sure everyone—from the newest associate to the CEO—has restroom cleanliness “on the brain,” according to Todd Jenney, vice president of operations for Huck’s.

“We’ve raised our standards dramatically from years past,” says Jenney. “We’ve implemented a restroom caddy (see p. 3) that everyone from our associates to our CEO has to grab and take in with them. It’s got all the necessary items to clean, deodorize and sanitize. Restrooms are assigned on every shift duty checklist to be cleaned twice a shift, but all Huck’s employees know if they’re going to use the restrooms themselves that they have to take the caddy with them. Everyone handles it—I’ve even seen Randy [Fulkerson, Huck’s CEO] carrying the caddy before.”

When all else fails, Jenney suggests, launch a contest. Huck’s challenged its employees to maintain its facilities and to take pride in them. They had restroom-decorating contests that were graded beyond the chain’s regular inspections; the themes used to decorate the restrooms reflected the store employees’ interests—from patriotic themes to NASCAR. The top 10 restrooms in the 135-store chain received $1,000 for store employees to split. And for perfect mystery shopper scores, the chain awarded 10 associates a trip to Cancun for them and a guest.

With stakes so high, Jenney says there are several stores that have never misseda point on their bathroom scores over an entire year. These “competitions” area fun way for Huck’s to reinforce in the minds of associates how seriously thecompany takes restroom cleanliness.


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