At first we thought it was magic. We simply could not understand how the Clean Hands machines in the bathrooms at Crushed Red knew the difference between various employees.
But they do know. The machines, mounted just above the soap dispenser in each restroom, are able to identify each employee as they enter the bathroom. The purpose is to ensure that the employees wash their hands after they “shake the dew off their lilies.” Short of shooting highly illegal video in the W.C., it might just be the best way to ensure that restaurant employees don’t contaminate the food they’re prepping via dirty hands.
And there might be a little magic in how the system operates, but, as Crushed Red owner Chris LaRocca explained, it’s really the science of voice-recognition software.
“When we hire an employee,” he explained, “in our computer, we record their name and assign them a four-digit number. Once they’re in the system, they go to any of the hand sinks and wash their hands, and put their hand under the soap dispenser. It beeps and dispenses the soap, and then there’s an audio message asking them to identify themselves. They say their name and number, and the machine, which is powered by an Ethernet cord, notes the time of that hand-washing occurrence.
“We keep track of who washes and how often they wash,” he went on, “and we require that everyone wash their hands at least once an hour.”
It’s amusing to consider that a technology more advanced than just about anything we’re currently using in our homes and workplaces is being put to use in the bathroom of a pizza-and-salad joint.
But, says LaRocca, “I’ve heard that studies have been done and something like 40 percent of people don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom. Isn’t that crazy?”
“And look at the E. Coli outbreaks about 10 years ago, what that did to our industry,” he added. “I believe that the health department is going to mandate this someday. We’ve talked about this sort of thing in the restaurant association: Should we do hepatitis shots? And a year later it was mandated. When it comes to food handling, you can’t be too much of a clean freak. I’ve had phone calls from our guests who see the sign that says we monitor our hand-washing for 100 percent compliance, and they appreciate us making a conscientious effort on this, it makes them feel good about choosing our restaurant—and a hundred bucks a month for this is a lot cheaper than an outbreak.”
The system isn’t foolproof. An employee could just wipe the soap off on his pants and not wash. He could grab a dirty door handle immediately after washing. Or, there could be a million other disgusting scenarios that you can think of that could put the kibosh on the wholee ablution. We know. We’re thinking of them right now. And we disgust ourselves—really, we do.
In fact, admits LaRocca, there are still a few bugs in the system.
“I’ve got it in four restaurants now: Triumph Grill, Kota Wood Fire Grill, EdgeWild, and Crushed Red. With the voice recognition, we have a lot of different ethnic groups and a lot of different dialects and the software doesn’t always recognize them, so that’s why having them recite their four-digit number really helps. All in all, it works about 90 percent of the time, so we’re still in the testing phase.”
“What we’re working on now,” he went on, “is an even better system where the act of washing your hands actually clocks you in, and you can’t clock in any other way.”
LaRocca’s partnership with the company that develops all this tidying-up tech, the St. Louis-based Clean Hands Co., will continue as he keeps looking for ways to make the “filthy 40 percent” clean up their act.