Restaurant operators don’t need surveys or studies to tell them unclean restrooms are a major turnoff or even deal breakers for patrons. But there are other issues involved. New research sheds light on the negative impacts dirty restrooms can have on a restaurant’s revenue and online reputation and, even worse, on the potential food-safety implications poor hand-washing practices by restaurant customers might have.

Earlier this year, Opinion Research Corp. surveyed 1,005 U.S. adults on behalf of Clorox Professional Products Company. Some of the results seem ominous. The survey found that 69 percent of respondents would refuse to patronize restaurants that have unclean restrooms. And 39 percent said they have immediately left a restaurant or similar business because the restroom smelled like urine.

The study also looked at the potential loss of revenue a cringe-inducing restroom can cause. The findings:

• Two-thirds of survey respondents said they would refuse to patronize establishments like restaurants or hotels that have unclean restrooms.

• Fifty-five percent said they would likely review a business more negatively, both online and offline, based on whether its restroom was clean.

On this latter result, researchers pointed to a Harvard Business School study which found that Yelp reviews can have between a five and nine percent effect on a business’s revenues, and that just three bad reviews can lead to lower profitability.
The implication here: restaurants that have unclean restrooms are on the fast track to receiving multiple negative online reviews, even if the rest of a patron’s dining experience was positive. Which is to say, when a customer has a negative restroom experience at your restaurant and shares it via social media, your online reputation and your bottom line can take a hit.

Statistics provided by commercial plumbing fixture company Bradley Corp. paint a similar picture. They show that more than 80 percent of consumers would avoid a restaurant with a dirty restroom. Customers’ biggest complaints: urine smells, followed by dirty floors.

On the hygiene front, Bradley reports that the top five surfaces for bacteria buildup in order are stalls, restroom doors, soap dispensers, toilet seats and toilet flush handles.

Customers aren’t perfect, either. Bradley notes that 40 percent of U.S. adults and 53 percent of Canadian adults occasionally skip soap while washing their hands, and 25 percent of both these populations don’t wash their hands after coughing and sneezing.

Those numbers are echoed in a new study by researchers from Michigan State University’s School of Hospitality Business. Lead investigator professor Carl Borchgrevink, a former chef and restaurant manager, trained a dozen college students to unobtrusively observe and record restroom hand washing habits of restaurant patrons. The key finding was that only five percent of the people observed washing their hands did so long enough to kill the germs that can cause infections. More than 33 percent didn’t use soap and 10 percent did not wash their hands at all.

Other findings:

• Fifteen percent of men didn’t wash their hands at all, compared with seven percent of women.

• When they did wash their hands, only 50 percent of men used soap, compared with 78 percent of women.

• People were less likely to wash their hands if the sink was dirty.

• Hand washing was more prevalent earlier in the day.

• People were more likely to wash their hands if a sign encouraging them to do so was present.

“Imagine you’re a business owner and people come to your establishment and get foodborne illness through the fecal-oral route—because people didn’t wash their hands—and then your reputation is on the line,” Borchgrevink says. “You could lose your business.”