Outside Insights | September 2013 | By Jason Renner

Dirty Little Secret

Why washroom design, cleanliness matter to quick-service restaurants and consumers.

Four in five customers would avoid a restaurant if the bathroom is dirty.
Four in five customers would avoid a restaurant altogether if the bathroom is dirty. thinkstockphotos.com
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As the quick-service market becomes more hypercompetitive, many brands are upgrading their brick and mortar facilities as a means of improving the consumer experience and differentiating themselves from the competition. Within the last three years, industry behemoths including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King have announced major initiatives to improve their restaurants by rolling out new facility designs and amenities— such as flat-screen TVs, free WiFi access, and café-style lounge areas—typically associated with fast-casual or full-service environments.

Quick serves large and small are rightfully concerned with the aesthetics of their facilities. The adage “we eat with our eyes” does not stop at the plate, and consumer perceptions of food quality are greatly impacted by how a restaurant looks. While leather couches and digital menuboards can go a long way in enhancing a quick serve’s image, research suggests that restrooms can play as large a role in defining the consumer experience as the dining room.

According to a survey by Zogby International, more than 80 percent of consumers would avoid a restaurant with a dirty restroom—not just avoid the restroom, but avoid the restaurant altogether. Given the powerful impressions washrooms leave on consumers, operators need to ensure that their lavatories do not disappoint.

More than 80 percent of consumers would avoid a restaurant with a dirty restroom—not just avoid the restroom, but avoid the restaurant altogether.

In addition to brand building, intelligent restroom design can improve the performance of facility management in other meaningful ways, including through sustainability, cleanliness, and customer and employee safety.

Despite the heightened emphasis placed on green design, restrooms remain hotbeds for waste, especially when it comes to water and paper towels. Commercial buildings consume more than 88 percent of the potable water in the United States, and plumbing fixtures account for nearly half (47 percent) of total water use. The average low-flow commercial sink uses half a gallon of water per minute, and many facilities have older sinks that consume far more water than that.

In addition, Americans use 13 billion pounds of paper towels each year at a cost of $2.3 billion. This consumption results in the equivalent of 270 million trees being flushed down the toilet or thrown in the garbage annually. Issues surrounding water consumption and paper towel use—along with their associated cost implications—will likely become more pronounced over the near term, given the dynamics associated with growing demand for finite resources.

With these factors in mind, quick serves should incorporate next generation technologies to reduce their environmental impact and realize cost savings. For example, substituting high-efficiency hand dryers for paper towels can completely eliminate paper towel use, and new state-of-the-art faucets can reduce water use by 24 percent annually when compared to the aforementioned half-gallon-per-minute flow rate.

Restrooms are also breeding grounds for bacteria. A 2011 research report conducted by scientists from the University of Colorado in Boulder examined the microbial biogeography of public restroom surfaces and identified 19 bacterial phyla across the surfaces of the restrooms studied.

While some of the concentrations of bacteria were found in the usual suspects—such as toilet seats and floors—much of our exposure to bacteria in public restrooms comes during the hand-washing process. In fact, the exteriors of soap dispensers contain more bacteria than toilet seats.

Consumers are developing greater awareness of how to limit their exposure to germs and heightened sensitivity to coming in contact with public surfaces. For these reasons, touchless washroom fixtures should be the standard for all quick-serve restaurants because they enable consumers to wash their hands while touching as few public surfaces as possible. They also improve the overall hygiene of the restaurant.

Restrooms might seem innocuous, but they are actually one of the most dangerous places in a restaurant after the kitchen. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 234,000 people visit emergency rooms each year because of injuries suffered in washrooms.

Falls are the No. 1 source of restroom injuries, 30 percent of which result in head and neck damage. Wet floors exacerbate the risk of washroom falls, and a significant portion of these injuries are a direct result of outdated sinks, faucets, and hand dryers, which cause water buildup on floors.

In response to consumer safety concerns, quick-serve operators should look into newer washroom fixtures—from sinks to high-intensity dryers—with design features that ensure water doesn’t wind up on the floor in order to minimize safety hazards and associated headaches, such as lawsuits and negative publicity.

While washrooms might not be the most celebrated part of a quick-serve unit, few other areas of a restaurant can have as profound impact on its operations. As quick serves continue to focus their energy on improving their brick and mortar locations, restroom design needs to be at the forefront of the conversation. Quick serves that invest in intelligent restroom design and smart fixtures will reap dividends over the long term by improving facility management, enhancing the consumer experience, and delivering tangible business results.

Jason Renner is the senior product manager at Bradley Corporation, a leading manufacturer of commercial plumbing fixtures and washroom accessories. He recently led the development of the company’s Advocate AV-Series Lavatory System.