How To Clean up in the Restaurant Business; The Benefits and Techniques of Keeping Your Dining Area Neat and Clean

You could keep your kitchen so clean, the local health inspector draws a happy face on your sanitation rating. Your staff might be so attentive to personal hygiene and cleanliness that they could perform surgery at the end of each shift.

The condition of your restroom might rival that of the queen’s private loo. And yet, in the dining room, a mere cobweb hanging from your light fixture, an errant string bean under a table, a sticky spot on the floor, has your customers shaking their heads.

A crucial component to your restaurant’s success is often not given the attention it deserves. Keeping your dining room clean is more than a health issue — a clean dining room is a promotional tool and means of ensuring those customers keep coming back.

The dining room is the area of the house that every customer will see. Unless you have an open kitchen layout, no one sees your gleaming food preparation areas. Only a fraction of your guests will visit the restroom.

. . . with the possible exception of hospitals or other medical settings, nowhere is cleanliness as important to customers as in a restaurant. — Patricia Luebke

“I always had the feeling that the board of health spends all its time in the kitchen and not enough time in the dining room where the customers actually are,” says Jim Moore, who has decades of hands-on experience in restaurant management and consulting. Today, his company, Moore Ideas, Inc., consults in the service and hospitality industries.

It’s unlikely that any restaurant ever failed a health department inspection over a condition exclusive to the dining room. The health department is far more interested in the kitchen — in fact, an examination of a half dozen actual health department forms from different municipalities showed no items that are inspected in the dining room, other than ventilation. (For more information, see “The Health Inspector and Your Operation: How to Make the Grade,”.)

But unsafe sanitary conditions can exist in the dining room, too. For example, a cleaner in an upscale steakhouse reports that he frequently finds tough bits of steak that guests have tossed or dropped under the table. Rotting meat presents a health hazard (it attracts vermin) and a source of unpleasant odor. No one’s health may be in peril from eating beneath a cobweb, but genuine health concerns as well as aesthetics require that your dining room gets regularly and thoroughly cleaned.

Think about the experience of your average guest. He is typically walking through your dining room, sitting in a chair with his hands on the tabletop for an hour or more — sometimes for much longer. During that time, that guest has a chance to see every fingerprint on the window, every smudge, every crumb on the floor and every cobweb in the corner. And, with the possible exception of hospitals or other medical settings, nowhere is cleanliness as important to customers as in a restaurant.

Keeping the dining room clean is no small task. Keeping the dining room clean takes more than a quick wipe of the tables and a fast vacuum cleaning. Every day, guests track in dirt, mud and everything else with them. Bits of food get stuck in chairs. Drinks get spilled. Small children drop half their meals on the floor. But there’s more. As one frontline cleaner put it, “Humans shed.” Add hair and skin cells to the mix and you have yourself a major cleaning challenge.

It’s not just guests who are dirtying up the dining room, either. Your staff is, too. Trays get dropped, and glasses get filled too high so drinks get spilled while being served. Minnesota-based cleaning consultant Maurice Dixon says, “Your servers are tracking food and grease on their shoes from the kitchen right onto the floors of your dining room.” He adds, “That’s why mats are so important.”

How important is cleanliness? One major restaurant chain found that the No. 1 factor in whether customers return to a restaurant is its cleanliness. It was more important than the quality of the food, the service, the atmosphere, and the prices.

William R. Griffin is president of the Seattle-based Cleaning Consultant Services. His latest book, “Food Service, Health, Sanitation and Safety,” is a 300-page training and reference manual for restaurant managers, chefs, supervisors and cleaners. “Potential customers, when given a choice of competing restaurants with similar menu selection and prices, will invariably select the establishment that appears clean,” he says. “Many will even pay more for their dinners if they feel the environment is safe. Others will select an eating establishment, and stick with it because ‘at least it’s clean.'”

Clean is a Mind-set

What is clean anyway? Clean is more than an absence of dirt and dust, although that’s a good place to start. Clean means your restaurant looks good, feels good and smells good. Clean sparkles. Clean shines. Clean makes customers feel pampered and relaxed. Clean makes you smile. Clean makes your restaurant a better place to work.

Griffin puts it this way: “Cleanliness begins as a state of mind long before the first dust mop is pulled from its hook or the first bottle of detergent is uncapped. Cleanliness is a basic part of the foundation on which all else in the food service operation rests.”

Just like with any aspect of restaurant management, though, developing good routines is crucial. In other words, you need a plan. When it comes to housekeeping, restaurants require more detailed planning than a typical office or retail store. What’s more, traffic flow in a restaurant can vary greatly from day to day depending on on-site events, holidays and weather. Restaurant hours may vary from day to day as well. And the cleanliness standards for a restaurant are always high. A customer may forgive a retail store for being a mess on the day of a big sale, but a customer demands that a restaurant be clean no matter what the circumstances.

You may decide to do the cleaning yourself or you may decide to hire outside help for cleaning. Whichever you decide, keep this in mind: Cleaning must take place on an ongoing basis all day long. You can’t wait for the last guests to leave to begin. That doesn’t mean you start vacuuming under customers’ feet, but it does mean doing spot cleanups as the day goes on. For example, the floor may need to be wiped during inclement weather. The debris left by a family with small children must be removed. Spills must be thoroughly cleaned up. “This contributes to overall cleanliness, and also makes the final cleanup less gruesome at shift’s end,” Griffin says.

Here are two systems used by restaurants that do the cleaning themselves. Find the one that works best for you — or devise your own. What’s important is that the routine is so engrained that keeping your restaurant’s dining room clean barely needs a thought.

The Zone System: Of course, there are tasks that must be completed every day, but with the Zone System, you assign special areas to each day. That way part of your dining room gets special attention every day. One zone might be the floor where all the furniture is moved, baseboards are vacuumed and carpet stains are treated. Another zone may be your table and chairs where all furniture is meticulously cleaned. Pick a zone for each day you’re open and decide which tasks go with each zone.

For example, when it’s the “wall and ceiling day,” the jobs might include dusting for cobwebs, finding finger marks on walls or molding, dusting ceiling fans, cleaning artwork such as framed prints or decorative items, and cleaning the windows. When you have a precise list of tasks for each zone, the cleaning goes automatically and is always done the same way. No one has to use their judgment to decide,

“Does the ceiling fan get dusted?” since the answer will probably be, “Nah, looks clean to me.” With the Zone System, the ceiling fan gets cleaned once a week — whether it needs it or not.

One of the other benefits of zone cleaning is that your staff doesn’t feel overwhelmed by it. No one is asking them to clean the entire restaurant every day. Zone cleaning also offers a variety of tasks so no one should get bored or think, “I’m always the one who gets stuck wiping the tables.”

Even with zone cleaning, there may be jobs such as vacuuming and cleaning the front door that you’ll want done every day. Most importantly, reduce your plan to writing. When you make a task checklist for each zone and each day, cleaning can take place with or without your supervision.

The Daily, Weekly, Monthly System: Here’s an alternate system where the tasks are divided into which ones are done daily, which ones are done weekly and which ones only have to be done monthly. As with zone cleaning, the benefit is that the tasks are done automatically. Here, too, no one has to use his or her judgment as to what is done when. Those decisions have already been made.

Daily tasks may be vacuuming the main traffic areas and around the door and cleaning the front door. Doing a little each day means that the jobs only have to be done thoroughly on a weekly basis. For example, the tables and chairs may be wiped on a daily basis, but thoroughly cleaned (including the underside of tables) on a weekly basis. Daily, weekly and monthly tasks should also be committed to paper.

Include the definitions of each job. For example, “clean artwork” may be defined as “removing framed pieces from walls, dusting wall, dusting frames, cleaning glass, and returning piece to its original place on wall.” The definitions must be customized to your own operation, but be precise in your approach so no questions remain as to what constitutes completing a task.

The Outsourcing Option

You might choose to hire a cleaning service rather than rely on staff to do the job. Which is better? “The answer to that question depends entirely on the situation — your economics, the number of staff you have, how well you communicate, your hours of operation, what kind of cleaning companies are available in your area, and what kind of supervision you can give,” Jim Moore says. Moore has seen it work well — and badly. He leans, however, toward hiring a cleaning service. “If I were running a restaurant today and I could hire a cleaning company that could do a good job, I would go with an outside service,” he says.

Ken Galo of L & K Cleaning Services in Brookfield, Wisconsin, believes a restaurant can combine staff cleaning with contract cleaning. He says that restaurants might want to clean their own dining rooms on a nightly basis and use a cleaning service only for the heavy-duty cleaning such as machine scrubbing the floors or steam cleaning the carpeting. “You can help get a better price from your contractor by assisting them in their job,” he says. “Simply moving the furniture for them saves them time and saves you money.”

Among the top reasons for hiring a cleaning service is staff fatigue. At the end of a typical business day, it may be an hour past closing before your staff can get to the bathrooms and the vacuuming. At the end of a long shift, even the most motivated employee (or dedicated owner) just plain runs out of gas. There’s no energy left to do the thorough cleaning job that your dining room needs.

Another reason for considering a cleaning service is the variety and quality of tools the service will bring to the task of cleaning your restaurant. From putty knives to “wet floor” signs and state-of-the-art vacuum cleaners, a professional cleaning service has invested in the best tools to do the job. After all, the service wants to clean in the most efficient way possible and that means having the right tools for the job.

But it’s not just the equipment. A good cleaning service has a wealth of expertise that is put to work on behalf of your restaurant. Whether it’s stain removal, the proper care of wood floors or tile, carpet care or any number of cleaning chores, a cleaning service has the experience and knowledge to do the job safely and effectively.

A cleaning service isn’t always the perfect solution, though. Staffing shortages can turn anyone who can hold a mop into an instant “cleaning professional.” Maurice Dixon leans toward the cleaning service option, but adds a cautious note. “If a cleaning service does what they are supposed to do, there are some advantages to using one,” he says. “If that works, that’s fine, but it often doesn’t.”

Still Unconvinced?

Cleaning your dining room consistently will go a long way to create a more pleasing guest environment. Once you are cleaning regularly, you may see places where cleaning isn’t enough. If you’re successful, your carpeting, furniture and fixtures are going to become worn and need replacing. Among the responsibilities of operating an establishment is making timely repairs and replacements. As a rule of thumb, restaurants replace carpeting every one to two years, depending on customer volume.

By the way, your mother was right: Vacuuming your carpeting regularly will extend its life. All those little bits of pebble, food and dirt wear the carpet out if they stay inside. More frequent replacements eat into your income. In this business, you succeed by saving a penny here, earning a penny there. “It all boils down to dollars and cents in cost savings when regular maintenance is provided,” Griffin says. “The food service industry is highly competitive and every dollar counts. Money wasted on premature remodeling, repairs, and restoration is money that is no longer available for employee benefits, marketing, supplies, staffing, reinvestment or profit.”

Griffin offers one additional factor to consider. He urges restaurateurs to honor their food by serving it in an environment of cleanliness. He says, “The quality of your food — its appearance, taste and preparation — can’t overcome a dirty facility.”

One last thought: Cleaning your dining room may be an area where “do as I say” does not work as a management technique. As the restaurant owner, you have to set the tone for making cleaning a priority and setting the standards for your restaurant. If you just walk through the dining room while the staff wipes and sweeps, you are not presenting a very convincing case for the joys of a sparkly dining room. Pitch in from time to time and show how important your clean restaurant is. Pick up that mint wrapper at the receptionist station, if only to make a point.


Tools of the Trade

Whether you do all the cleaning yourself or have a cleaning service do it for you, every restaurant should be stocked with its own cleaning supplies either for daily cleanings or emergency occasions. Here’s a “minimum equipment list” or the tools and products that every restaurant should have handy — and use. Which brand of products you use doesn’t matter as much whether you use them regularly.

Invest in a decent, commercial vacuum cleaner. That old model you’ve brought from home isn’t cutting it. Get one that’s easy to get to and easy to use — not some oversized and aging clunker that is so big and bulky that it’s a day’s work getting it out of the closet and plugged in. Regular vacuuming will make a huge difference in your restaurant. If you need extension cords to make vacuuming go faster, get those, too. Get a carpet sweeper. For spot cleanups during the day, a carpet sweeper does the job with less intrusion on your guests.

Replace that old mop. If the mop you use to clean the bathroom or other floor surfaces looks like it’s harboring disease, it’s time for a new one. If you wouldn’t use it in your home, don’t use it in your restaurant.

Consider the low-tech feather duster. Contrary to popular opinion, a feather duster doesn’t just move dust around. A feather duster made out of ostrich feathers actually attracts the dust and holds it so you can shake it out later. Everything from plants to artwork looks so much more attractive when it’s dust-free.

Soaps, polishes, cleaners. No magic potions exist. Almost any product you buy will work — if you use it. Clean out your cleaning supplies. Get rid of those caked-up, dried-out, half-empty bottles. Start fresh with new products. And buy enough so that you’re not always running out. Your local janitorial supplier can be invaluable in suggesting products created especially for the cleaning challenges unique to restaurants.


The Devil is in the Details

Hidden dust and dirt are everywhere. Here are some places you may have missed in your housekeeping. Check these out to make sure your dining area is in tiptop shape.

Look up. Check where the wall meets the ceiling for cobwebs, dusties, or whatever name you have for them. You can rid yourself of them with a towel wrapped around a broom, a special duster with an extension pole or even by just standing on a ladder with the feather duster.

Green, growing things. Plants can enhance your restaurant, but they need upkeep. Inconsiderate guests may have left everything from a cocktail straw to a used tissue under the foliage. Pruning regularly of dead and dying leaves will keep your plants looking healthy.

Wall art. Even art can get dirty. Make sure the tops of frames are cleaned regularly. Also check the glass on framed pieces from different angles. Finger marks and streaks from previous cleanings may appear.

Air ducts. When you get up close and personal with the air duct, you can see a whole lot of dust and dirt. Take the vacuum hose up there from time to time to clear out the debris that’s accumulated.

Tabletop items. Don’t neglect the items that stay on the tables such as salt and pepper shakers and sugar holders. Cleaning consultant Maurice Dixon says, “My pet peeve is salt and pepper shakers that don’t get cleaned. Everyone touches them. Children put them in their mouths.” Think about it.

Light bulbs. A burned-out light bulb isn’t a cleanliness issue, but it is suggestive of neglect. What’s more, it just plain looks bad so make sure all light bulbs are in working order. Have a supply of all the different light bulbs you use in your restaurant on hand for quick replacement.

Baseboards. When vacuuming is done quickly, it’s easy to overlook the place where the floor meets the wall. This is an important area to check out — especially if just daily spot vacuuming is done. Debris tends to get pushed against the wall. Carefully run the vacuum along the baseboards — at least weekly.


Do You See What I see?

Every day before opening, pick one seat in your restaurant. Sit in that seat and look at the cleanliness of your restaurant from a guest’s point of view. You may be surprised at the missed spots, cobwebs, streaks, finger marks or dust you’ve missed.

Edges, Ledges, Corners and Vents!

Say it. Learn it. Live it. Edges, ledges, corners and vents are the four areas in your dining room that cleaning consultant Maurice Dixon says need attention when cleaning.

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