Broken Windows Theory For Restaurants

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I first heard of Broken Windows Theory in the book Freakonomics.  A synopsis of the theory is that there are social norms and expectations of how things are supposed to be.  When expectations aren’t met then society reacts poorly by lashing out.  The example that is commonly cited is an empty building in a city, if the owner’s keep it in good repair: no graffiti, windows intact; the social norm is maintained and the neighborhood stays on a good path.  If the building is allowed to be vandalized and the owners don’t repair broken windows and grafitti, the building violates the social norm, and the surrounding neighborhood is affected by an escalation of increased vandalism and crime.  I highly recommend checking out Freakanomics and here is a link to more on Broken Windows Theory.

I believe that broken windows theory applies to restaurants, there is an expectation of cleanliness and order that guests have when visiting a restaurant and when that expectation is not met then the restaurant as a whole suffers. Guests don’t treat the building with respect, I suspect that tips and sales decline.  I have seen this first hand in the restaurants that I have managed, your bathroom gets a little messy and then all of a sudden it is destroyed by the guests and this was in an a pricey restaurant in an upscale shopping center.

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Guests react to cues in their surroundings, a well maintained clean restaurant tells people that management cares and is paying attention to detail. I often think we apply the transitive property to cleanliness, a clean dining room probably means a clean kitchen, even though they have nothing to do with each other.

A dirty bathroom that hasn’t seen a member of the staff in some time sends the exact opposite message, do what you want in here because no one cares.  Maybe you could even justify trashing the bathroom as being helpful in getting the bathroom cleaned sooner if you make the mess so disgusting that someone has to pay attention.

How many times have you visited a restaurant that was old, the decor was out of date and ugly,  but it was exceedingly clean and well maintained.  By the end of the meal did you even notice the decor anymore?  More than likely not because the restaurant was clean, and it met you expectations.

Have you ever been to a restaurant where you are sat in a booth that has been ripped; how does that make you feel?  I can only describe that feeling as off or gross.  The next time you’re seated in a booth that has a rip in it, pay attention as you move around the restaurant, and I bet you will see more ripped booths.  Pay attention to the bathroom and see if it is as clean as you expect it to be.  I tried this experiment recently, and the bathroom didn’t meet my expectations.

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Ultimately this has to do with guest experience.  A dirty restaurant sends a bad message to guests and affects their enjoyment of the meal and the experience.  When was the last time you returned to a dirty restaurant?

I obviously haven’t spent years researching this, but I will tell you that when you start paying attention it is uncanny on how often you will notice it when you are at restaurants.   The question is what came first the chicken or the egg?

In the booth example from above; did one booth get ripped and then that set off the escalation of more booths being ripped over time or did they all get ripped on one day?  Or why was the booth ripped and the bathroom trashed?  Is this endemic of bad management or does the restaurant start of pristine every day and then guests just don’t care and mess it up?

I don’t know.

As a restaurant manager, you should be aware of the social norm and remind yourself that your guests have expectations around cleanliness and order.

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on this stuff; have you ever experienced broken windows theory at a restaurant?

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Tommy Yionoulis

I've been in the restaurant industry for most of my adult life. I have a BSBA from University of Denver Hotel Restaurant school and an MBA from the same. When I wasn't working in restaurants I was either doing stand-up comedy, for 10 years, or large enterprise software consulting. I'm currently the Managing Director of OpsAnalitica and our Inspector platform was originally conceived when I worked for one of the largest sandwich franchisors in the country. You can reach out to me through LinkedIn.

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6 Comments

  1. In life we must keep keep clean to enjoy a long life and when I go out I can only think about the Seinfeld Episode!

  2. Great information. So true too. I am a Customer Experience Assessment Specialist. I actually go to places like this and evaluate them. I then report back to the manager /owner. Sometimes I go as a secret shopper other times everyone knows I will there. I am not amazed anymore at how restaurants, hotels etc. really don’t get how important the smallest things affect a customers experience.

    1. Thanks for your comment. How much importance from a scoring perspective do you put on bathrooms, outside appearance, and general cleanliness of the dining room?

  3. I’ve never heard it put like this, the broken window theory, but it does make sense. I have been to restaurants, only once if they are not clean and kept up. Especially if the looks of the restaurant does not meet in the middle with the prices. At my restaurant, my ladies hear the same thing over and over until they get it; keep the bathrooms clean, keep the food off the floor, I do not abide cob-webs in the corners! It works, my ladies take pride in their own work, which makes my job easier. I will, in the future, pay more attention to this “broken window theory” when I am out and about. Thanks for publishing, Alice

    1. Thank you for your comment. It sounds like you are leading by example and demanding excellence from your team, good leadership always work.

  4. christopher waldron says:

    interesting theory and probably true with most businesses. Clear expectations of this theory are huge with staff members. Their pride in the facility reflects managements pride for better or worse which ultimately reflects customer expectations even on a sub-conscience level. This is why constant bathroom checks and daily facility check lists for opening and closing managers is a must. Really interesting theory to analyze and think about! Thanks for sharing that.

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