Cleaning Up: The Bottom Line

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Cleaning Up: The Bottom Line

By Matthew Enis - 05/27/2002
While Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs whistled while they worked, its doubtful convenience store employees are doing the same. C-stores, with windows to wash, floors to mop, bathrooms to scrub, foodservice equipment to sanitize, oil leaks to remove and gas pumps to degrease just may generate more cleaning needs than virtually any other retail or foodservice format.

Add to that the problem of turnover (it's amazing people find time to leave with all that cleaning to do), and c-store owners and managers have a truly difficult situation on their hands. Cleanliness offers customers one of the first and most lasting impressions of a store, yet training a constantly shifting pool of employees to perform daily tasks efficiently, consistently and safely is a tough proposition.

Smaller chains, such as Salisbury, Md.-based Cato Gas & Oil Co., generally find that a simple set of procedures, outlined with a checklist, works well.

"We purchase our cleaning supplies through our grocery wholesaler. Our managers handle all of the training," said Candice Mears, supervisor for the seven-store chain. "With windows, cleaning is done as needed; floors are mopped every night. Each month, we have a floor-cleaning company come in to refinish the floors."

Simple enough, yet Mears acknowledged that if the chain was much larger, the company might consider working out a more standardized system "to keep everyone on the same page." And in a retail world often defined by regional, district and store-level management, most operators would agree that this is a necessity during growth periods.

Cleaning Concerns

Employee safety, a central concern of any cleaning program, means proper training is imperative. Tough cleaning jobs often require tough chemicals, many of which can be hazardous when mixed or used improperly.

"We have a new-hire packet, which includes all employment forms that new hires have to fill out, such as I-9s and W-4s, as well as our company handbook and a new hire manual," said Rose Bache, human resources manager for Greenfield, Mass.-based Rice Oil Co. Inc., which operates 15 Neighbors Stores.

The company's manual includes all of the basic information that store-level employees need to know before they start working — including MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) information, instructions for shutting off gas pumps and an explanation of the fire suppression system.

Bache added that within 30 days of beginning employment, all new hires were required to attend a full-day training session at the chain's headquarters. These training sessions include quizzes that test employees on their understanding of some of the most critical information included in the manual.

Employees must also view OSHA's (Occupational Safety and Health Administration's) "Right to Know" video, which explains the basic statutes of the Federal Hazard Communication Standard. Essentially, the law requires employers to establish and maintain an accident prevention program and cultivate an environment where employees are familiar with potential health hazards at their jobs.

At Rice Oil, on-the-job training reinforces safety skills discussed during these sessions and in the manuals. "When someone starts working, they never start working without someone mentoring or training them," said Bache.

"Managers are supposed to show them how to do a task properly before expecting them to perform that task alone. They're shown how to clean the pumps with certain chemicals and how to clean the bathrooms with a separate set of chemicals. Even the windshield wash used outside at most stores is a dangerous chemical; it can be highly toxic or even flammable."

Bache added that the company's purchasing manager works very closely with store-level management to ensure that MSDS sheets are kept up to date for the chemicals that employees use.

This is critical: If chemicals are found in improperly labeled spray bottles, OSHA inspectors can fine a store up to $1,500 per instance, according to Jim Keller, vice president of Liverpool, N.Y.-based Patco Food Safety Consultants.

Clean Choice

Developing a standardized program takes work. A number of suppliers have developed easy-to-use lines of cleaning products, but their level of involvement with the development and implementation of a program depends greatly on what a company is willing to pay per store.

Chains that have developed proprietary training programs work with either products sold by their grocery wholesalers or regional industrial supply companies such as Williamsport, Pa.-based Susquehanna Paper & Sanitary Supply Corp.

"We offer the convenience of being one vendor with many different items," said Douglas Durand, vice president and general manager of the company. "It costs a company money each time they have to go through someone else to get another set of products. Cleaning supplies are only a portion of our business."

The company supplies customers ranging from c-store and supermarket chains to factories and warehouses. "We try to help on a consulting basis. Our sales staff helps identify what needs a chain might have and what types of items that we could supply them with," said Durand. "We also examine their current purchasing practices and inventory procedures — many chains have way too many inventory dollars tied up in cleaning supplies. We try to help them manage their inventory levels."

Durand contends that due to the nature of the bidding process normally associated with products such as janitorial supplies, many manufacturers have begun to sacrifice quality for price.

"It's better to develop long-term relationships with suppliers of products like these," he argued. "It's a two-way street. Many of the most successful clients that we deal with take the approach of developing partner relationships with us and with their suppliers in each vendor area. It makes a long-term arrangement, not a 12-month agreement."

Also, when selecting a program, operators should factor in shrink. It's much more expensive for a company to allow employees to write off commercial cleaning products when the back room is out of stock than to deal with a reliable supplier of industrial strength cleaners.

Several suppliers place a more specific focus on c-stores, and have developed lines of products and training materials more tailored to the industry's needs.

Recognizing the industry's nagging turnover problem, McKeesport, Pa.-based Apter Industries Inc. developed its "color care" system to simplify training.

"We color-coordinate all of our products; it's a very, very simple approach," said J. Scott Apter, president of the national company. "We use red for cleaning windows, for example. Since most off-the-shelf window cleaners are blue, this allows supervisors to walk into a store and immediately know whether an employee is using the right product."

To ensure employee safety, the company's products include a complete list of ingredients on each bottle, along with chemical abstract numbers and easy-to-understand directions for use.

MSDS sheets for all of Apter Industries' products can also easily be printed from the company's Web site at

Apter argued that while many cleaning-supply vendors have begun offering an expanded menu of services, such as sanitation audits, operators should determine whether these services have value before contracting for supplies at a higher cost.

"The supply side of this [industrial and retail cleaning] business is pure cost center," said Apter. "Operators are going to want to control those costs. We think $300 to $500 per unit, per year is what c-store operators should be willing to spend on cleaning supplies."

"Many vendors will offer to perform regular sanitation audits," he continued. "With most programs, if you set yourself up well, and you understand what you're doing, it shouldn't be a problem. It's difficult for a vendor to justify services like that unless they are expecting to make up to $1,000 per unit."

Retailers weighing whether to handle safety training themselves or rely on the vendor must take into account what exactly the vendor provides.

"To have execution, motivated staff and the measurable goal of cleaner stores, we believe that there has to be a training and supervision element of a program with a supplier," said Patco's Keller.

"We have a full time staff of service technicians and quality assurance managers — it's an operational support team that helps manage cleaning programs in your stores and train employees," he said.

Patco's system uses chemical concentrates in either dissolvable packets or special safety dispensers to reduce inventory space and ensure that employees mix chemicals to the proper strength.

The system also simplifies training through "employee job aids" — pictures that graphically break down each piece of store equipment and show the necessary steps needed to clean them.

Training and consulting is included as part of Patco's cleaning programs; after visiting each of a chain's stores once per month during the first quarter of rollout the company follows through with quarterly visits afterward.

Outsourcing Necessities

Yet even the most thorough training program will have gaps. While regular hourly employees can be trained to clean store equipment such as fountain machines and cooler vents, regular maintenance of such equipment will still be needed.

"The simple changing of filters and keeping coils clean will keep your equipment running. If you can keep clean, that's going to mean less down time on your equipment," said Henry McNutt, director of maintenance and construction at Gibsonia, Pa.-based Handee Marts Inc., which franchises 73 7-Eleven locations.

The company has an in-house maintenance staff that performs more critical or detailed projects such as treating floors for slip resistance per manufacturer's update guidelines.

McNutt suggested that smaller operators building new locations should work closely with a good architect and to select suitable tiling, windows and other in-store fixtures that will be easy to maintain.

Also, for chains without an internal maintenance staff, finding good sub-contractors to maintain everything from tiling to HVAC systems should be a priority. "Make sure everything is in writing — you want to have parts and labor included in everything that would need to be done," said McNutt.