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Restaurant brands should consider their restroom policies, experts say

In the wake of Starbucks’ racial-bias controversy, some say operators should develop procedures concerning store use.
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Every operator should have a policy surrounding restroom use by those who enter their stores, experts say. But nobody wants to talk about it.

That’s the takeaway from some industry experts in the wake of the public relations disaster that hit Starbucks after two African-American men accused of trespassing were arrested in a Philadelphia unit of the chain last month.

“At some point, the industry has to stop being afraid of its shadow,” says Gerry Fernandez, president of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance. “At some point, the industry has got to talk about these things.”

Restaurant Business reached out to more than a half-dozen restaurant companies, from large chains to independents, for comment on their policies surrounding restroom use. Not one would talk on the record. One chain even requested that its name not be connected with this story in any way.

In the wake of the arrests, Starbucks announced it had changed its in-store policy to allow all customers, regardless of whether they make a purchase, to use all parts of its stores, including the restrooms.

Some customers and industry observers expressed concern that this policy would lead to dirty stores and stepped-up safety concerns.

Starbucks backed up its open-door policy with ground rules for customer behavior, including that everyone inside the unit must be considerate, act responsibly, communicate with respect and use the space as intended.

Experts say more chains should follow suit.

“Where is the human dignity, the human kindness of this?” Fernandez says. “It’s the hospitality industry. We could benefit by thinking about the human factor.”

Crafting such a policy could even boost the bottom line, says Jonathan Deutsch, a professor of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University in Philadelphia who writes Restaurant Business’Advice Guy column.

“Instead of operators becoming ‘restroom police,’ think about proactive ways to encourage people to come in, buy something and refresh in the restroom,” Deutsch says. “Maybe it’s some affordable grab-and-go items like bite-sized pastries, bottles of water or coffee to go … (or) reminding them that you have excellent hospitality for when they are there at the right time to spend money.”

Rather than adopting chainwide procedures, some brands might choose to tailor the rules by location. Restaurants in high-crime areas, for example, might need to be more restrictive for the safety of customers and employees, Fernandez says.

Without concrete policies, however, it’s easy for bias to cloud decision-making, he says.

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