Cleanliness, so the expression goes, is next to godliness, and while no expert would elevate the need for a tidy restaurant to the realm of spiritual enlightenment, many are passionate about one point: Now is not the time to slack on the suds.

According to a recent retail consumer study performed by M/A/R/C Research and National In-Store, 14 percent of consumers polled said they would stop visiting a store that was not as clean as they would like. Moreover, 29 percent said they would continue visiting an unclean store only if it was absolutely necessary. While this study focused on a wide range of retail establishments, the quick-service sector would be wise to pay attention to these figures.

“Clearly, cleanliness is an important component of the consumer experience,” says Randy Wahl, senior vice president of M/A/R/C. “This has a direct impact on the amount of spending a retailer can capture.”

Jim Miller, a principal with the foodservice cleaning and sanitization company Ecolab, says that impact is only going to become more significant as consumers’ wallets tighten in this economy and they grow increasingly less forgiving about a restaurant’s appearance.

“Customers are not as forgiving during these economic times,” Miller says. “When they do actually spend the money to go out and treat themselves, they want to have a good experience. They’re much more discerning these days. If they don’t get that experience, it’s going to lead to a lost customer.”

This doesn’t mean owners and operators have to break the bank in hiring new cleaning services or investing in the latest, most expensive sanitization technologies. In fact, most quick-service operators are probably not going to have a choice in the matter.

According to a recent Procter & Gamble survey titled “Cleaning in a Down Economy,” 85 percent of surveyed cleaning professionals in industries such as foodservice and hospitality have adopted a “doing more with less” approach to the sour economic conditions.

However, 91 percent of those who have adopted this mindset say they are likely to continue doing so even after the economy improves. This gets to a crucial point in the site maintenance equation: Owners and operators can do more for less, and making sure a location is spick-and-span often means first taking a hard look at how well the restaurant’s staff is being managed.

Brian Garry is senior director of foodservice for Cintas, which provides specialized services such as deep cleaning to thousands of restaurants and businesses across the country. He says when his company performs a deep clean at a location, owners and operators will often forget about regular site maintenance once Cintas has left.

“Owners and operators have to think about cleaning as a cycle,” Garry says. “It’s not enough for a quick-service owner to think, ‘Well, I spent X amount of money last month on a deep clean and that’s it.’ He has to constantly think about what he is doing on a regular basis to make sure his customer’s experience is a positive one.”

Another affordable—and often overlooked—approach to making sure a location is as clean as it should be is checking in on the competition. Too often, Garry says, owners and operators neglect to look outside the box of their own unit, creating a sort of tunnel vision. He recommends owners and operators make a concerted effort to regularly visit nearby restaurants. That way they can judge whether or not the bar is being set high enough at their location.

“You need to get out and you need to set a benchmark for yourself,” Garry says. “I think it’s imperative.”

Beth Cannon is a sanitization expert at the Steritech Group, which provides food safety, quality assurance, and pest control to hundreds of clients in the restaurant industry. She says a big factor contributing to a restaurant’s waning attention to cleanliness is basic human nature.

“It’s not about a cleaning crew, extra hours, or an extra person. It’s about making sure that if you have time to be lean, you have time to clean.”

“No one likes to do this work,” Cannon says. “No one wants to clean the floor, drain the sinks, or mop the bathrooms. Those are not fun jobs. So employees will often wait until these jobs get to the point of being really big, messy problems, and that makes them want to do it even less.”

This is where it becomes essential that owners and operators make sure they have established a regular, accountable cleaning schedule for their employees. It also means managers need to spend concentrated time with new employees when training them on how to keep the restaurant sanitary and presentable.

“If you’re dealing with part-time employees that are paid hourly, their goal is not to ensure everything is clean and well maintained. It’s not on the top of their minds,” she says. “If they’re well trained, that will change.”

Of course, not everything comes down to making sure the staff is doing its job correctly. There are a few aspects of site maintenance that fall squarely on the shoulders of owners and operators. Consider, for example, uniform cleanliness.

A 2009 survey conducted for Clipper Corporation by Decision Research Inc. about crew uniforms showed cleanliness ranking highest among factors considered important to quick-service customers. The phone survey measured the various factors of quick-service uniforms that make the most favorable impression on customers. The largest number of respondents—about 33 percent of males and 26 percent of females—indicated cleanliness as the most important factor, placing it ahead of other factors including fit, style, color, and even the “age-appropriateness” of the design.

Lou Porry is vice president of operations for Mexican Restaurants Inc. (mri), which owns several quick-service concepts in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. He says the company is taking the occasion of the sour economy to focus that much more on the cleanliness of its locations.

“The customer is not only more savvy these days. They also only have a limited amount of money they’re willing to spend,” Porry says. “So they will pick the place they think is clean and neat, and will provide them with good service. They are going to spend their money where they don’t have to worry about health issues, clutter, and all the rest that goes into making sure a location is clean.”

Food Safety, Story