(USA TODAY) -The most personal - and most telling - moment that a customer experiences in a restaurant isn't typically at the table.
It's in the restroom.
Walk into a clean restaurant restroom, and all's good. Walk into a dirty one, and there's hell to pay. Some 50% of restaurant patrons who have a negative experience with a bathroom - from dirty toilets to grimy soap dispenses to bad odors - will blab about it to friends and family, according to a recent survey by Harris Interactive for SCA Tissue North America.
Even more seriously, it's gonna cost business. Nearly 3 in 10 consumers surveyed said there are no second chances with dirty restrooms - and they would never return to the restaurant.
For the nation's 980,000 restaurants, whose sales are expected to top $660 billion this year, the costs, in image and bottom line, for yucky restrooms can be staggering. Consumers are increasingly posting descriptions and even photos of what they find on Facebook, in blogs and travel reviews and on other social-media sites.
Clean restrooms are particularly important for parents who take their kids out to eat. And it's hard to undo a lousy image for bathroom upkeep.
That's why Starbucks, for example, requires that restrooms be cleaned and stocked at least three times daily - and, again, whenever the restaurant's seating area is cleaned, says spokeswoman Lisa Passe. Restroom cleanings are done even more frequently in high-volume stores, Passe says.
At Starbucks, the shift supervisor typically assigns the task, then verifies - and initials - that it has been completed. Materials for the floors and walls in Starbucks restrooms are specifically selected to be "easily cleanable," she says.
One key to McDonald's turnaround that began way back in 2002 was former CEO Jim Cantalupo's obsession with clean restaurants that had equally clean restrooms. Cantalupo used to walk into restaurants, unannounced, and hand no-holds-barred scorecards that he had printed on the back of his business cards to the often-shocked store managers. "When I see something wrong, someone's gonna hear about it," Cantalupo said in a 2003 interview with USA TODAY. McDonald's declined to comment for this story.
For consumers, says Ronald Ruggless, Southwest bureau chief at Nation's Restaurant News, the thought process goes something like this: "If the public-facing bathroom is dirty, how committed is the operator to assuring that the less-public food-preparation area is clean and safe?"
Nor is the problem limited to fast food, says Sam Oches, editor at QSR magazine, a trade publication for the fast-food industry. Even fine-dining restaurants suffer the same problem - though not as frequently. "For some, cleanliness might fall low on the priority list that is already full with other busy tasks around the restaurant," he says.
At issue: poor training. No matter how much corporate executives preach about clean restrooms, Oches says, "If individual managers and employees aren't well-trained or committed to it, it won't make a difference."
If there's any doubt about how important a clean restroom is to a restaurant, just read consumer restaurant reviews. Some sound like horror stories.
A recent, scathing review on TripAdvisor from a McDonald's patron was posted after a visit to a McDonald's in Fort Stockton, Texas, in March. The review notes, "We came off a long ride and stopped here, used the restroom first, and decided to leave because they were so dirty."