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The Forgotten Bathroom Zone

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Customers place high value on clean restrooms
By Howland Blackiston January 2014 Expert Insights

What's a restaurant's most critical attribute for success? The food? Wrong. Restaurant customers list “Cleanliness of Restaurant” as the number-one most important attribute when selecting a dining venue. Your diners place a very high value on whether a place is clean or not.

King-Casey's work with restaurants supports that idea. In fact, our findings narrow its focus. Customers continuously tell us just how important it is to have a clean restroom. Moreover, they seem to equate clean bathrooms with clean kitchens. A “tidy bowl” is ranked as more crucial to a first impression than a restaurant's menu, service, or atmosphere! But the restroom is one “zone” of a restaurant that seldom receives much scrutiny from higher-ups. If clean restrooms are so important to customers, why aren’t restaurant owners giving restrooms the same level of rigorous analytical attention they give their menus, merchandising, dining areas, and service? One possible reason—little has been done to objectively study this attribute. How can we better understand and measure the quality indicators of a clean restroom? We took a closer look.

We Asked Customers What’s Most Important

King-Casey conducted a pilot study among 100 restaurant-goers. We wanted to find out what value customers put on clean restrooms; how deeply they equated clean restrooms with clean kitchens; and what specific qualities they looked for in restaurant restrooms. A better understanding of these details would help any restaurant take corrective action to keep their business from “going down the drain.”

Clean Restrooms Indicate a Clean Kitchen

Of those surveyed, 78 percent agreed that a clean restaurant restroom is a strong indicator of a clean kitchen. The more upscale the restaurant, the stronger the belief. Also, women were shown to believe this statement more frequently than men. Perhaps even more interesting was the fact that over 94 percent of those surveyed felt that restroom cleanliness is more important today than ever before. The reasons they cited come as no surprise. The media is full of stories about all kinds of diseases (SARS, West Nile Disease, Hepatitis, and so on). There's also an associated emphasis on hand-washing as the best way to avoid contracting many diseases, including the flu.

Gimme Clean Toilets!”

The leading quality indicator among all customers came as no surprise: a “clean toilet.” This was followed by attributes of cleanliness like “clean area around toilet,” “no sticky floors,” and “no trash.” These indicators held up across all types of restaurants and proved equally important for both men and women.

Other Quality Indicators

Customers were shown to believe that another key sign of a quality restroom was a written “guarantee,” posted and signed by management, highlighting a commitment to providing clean bathrooms. Customers also put value on “soft, absorbent toilet paper” (as opposed to the industrial variety that is often thin and waxy). Additionally, those surveyed told us that hooks on stall doors were important (providing a place to hang coats, pocketbooks, and shopping bags).

Last But Not Least

Ranked at the bottom of the list of quality attributes were “vending machines” and “advertising/promotion.” Customers felt that these features were equated with non-quality restrooms—something to keep in mind for those restaurants favoring either practice.

Male vs. Female

We launched the survey quite convinced that we would see a significant difference in how men and women ranked attributes of restroom quality. That turned out not to be the case. Men and women rated key quality attributes equally.

Don’t Forget The “Wow” Factor

At the conclusion of the survey we asked customers to help us identify “best practices.” We wanted their nominations for “best restrooms.” Interestingly, a new quality attribute emerged. They didn’t necessarily cite the most sparkling clean restroom they ever visited. Instead, they began to tell us about restrooms that had dazzled them with decor and innovative design features. We heard about stunning wall treatments, elegant fixtures, vases with fresh flowers, mood lighting, and even technological wizardry—ever see those LCD privacy panels that go from clear to opaque when you latch the stall door? So, although customers love spotless restrooms, their clearest memories are of those clean restrooms that also have a “wow” factor. Upon reflection, that’s not surprising. Customers expect certain basics in your dining area (clean room, clean plates, clean glasses, a functional layout, and pleasant decor). But what they remember (the real competitive edge) is often more architectural. A brand can be distinguished by the design elements that set you apart in the market. So it’s likely that a little more “wow” in your restrooms will also contribute to brand recall, distinction, and your customers’ perception of quality. Here’s an area where many brands are missing an opportunity.

Use a Zone-Specific Improvement Strategy

Typically, hours upon hours of thought and tons of resources go into distinguishing the exterior and interior trade dress of a restaurant brand. And plenty of effort goes into getting the menu exactly right. Seldom, however, does a similar level of research, planning, and design go into the bathrooms. They’re often built with a cookie-cutter sameness. Why have restrooms become the lost, forgotten “zone” in restaurants?

Restaurants often plan improvement strategies based on a holistic view of their environment. They don’t recognize that, in fact, their restaurant is a series of many different zones. Each zone is unique. And each is used by customers in a unique way. By better understanding these zones and how customers will use them, you can develop zone-specific brand solutions that make your customer’s experience highly efficient and far more pleasant.

The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.