By Diane M. Calabrese / Published March 2021
Smudged windows and soiled exterior walls do not exactly shout “Buy food here” to customers approaching a grocery store.
Harried consumers may take a can’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover approach and enter. But if they reach for a shopping cart and get some unknown sticky substance on their hands, well… Most opportunities for contract cleaners in our industry are outside stores, but there are possibilities inside, too.
Grocery store exteriors and parking lots have been part of the repertoire for Nick Campanale, owner of Nick’s Pressure Cleaning Services Inc. in New Port Richey, FL, for approximately 26 years, or shortly after he launched his company in 1993.
“I started in 1994 or 1995,” says Campanale. “I scored a big contract with Walgreens and little by little expanded.”
Word of mouth and a clever approach to advertising brought in more work in the sector. “We did a lot of stencil demos back in the day,” says Campanale. There’s nothing like showing a prospective customer what washing can do. As to whether a stencil should be a non-representational figure, a calling card with business name and contact, or a slogan is entirely the call of an individual. No one knows the local tenor of a place better than a business owner immersed in the community.
Contractors cleaning dumpsters often find themselves in grocery store parking lots. If they can get the attention of a night manager or other decision maker, they might be able to arrange a demonstration to illustrate their ability to clean pavement, says Campanale, who advises thinking broadly about possibilities.
The same protocols that apply to any jobsite must be in place at grocery stores. “We were the first in
our area to have surface cleaners,” explains Campanale. That meant washing did not damage concrete.
And Campanale adopted heat early on in part to reduce chemical use. “You own the runoff,” he says.
Campanale’s team generally cleaned only to the knee wall, or below windows, and charged extra to go higher. He says that finding the best approach in the mid-1990s benefited from talking with industry colleagues. “John Tornabene, Ron Musgraves, and I bounced stuff off each other.”
Redundancy prevents interruptions. Campanale had three hot-water machines on each rig, guaranteeing continuity if one went down.
In the beginning, stores would contract for multiple services, says Campanale. “Anything stainless steel—shopping carts and bakery racks—was steam cleaned.”
Early business in the sector was good, says Campanale. “We did travel to Massachusetts and Key West…We were carrying 600 gallons of water. Now, we’ve been undercut so badly, we only have a handful of grocery store accounts.”
The turning point was 2009, says Campanale. Stores tried to cut expenditures in the recession by contracting for only one exterior cleaning per year. With so many months between cleanings, the time it took a contractor to provide an excellent outcome at a site made it very difficult to turn a profit.
The strategy of a store must match that of a contract cleaner, or there is no match to be made. “Do a good job,” says Campanale, is his first priority. It will “get noticed.”
Efficiency, in fact, earned Campanale one of his big contracts early on. At the time, he was operating with a team of four. The team worked very quickly using a punch sheet that included details down to graffiti, mold, and rust removal. Heating water with burners, they worked fast.
Too fast, thought one night manager on a site, who informed superiors. In the end, the entire episode—including being monitored at subsequent sites—brought in more work for Campanale’s company because the results, when inspected, were so good (and achieved so expertly).
“Things have changed now,” says Campanale. “Many stores went with corporate cleaners.” And he finds it difficult to hire enough fully engaged employees who can work autonomously.
But, yes, there is still work available cleaning grocery stores. Mobile washers designed to onboard carts for steam cleaning allow some contractors to make a go of cleaning carts. Contracts for cleaning carts typically involve repairs to wheels, which can consume time and be difficult to price (especially with the self-locking wheels that prevent carts from being wheeled out of range).
How many grocery stores are there in the United States? The U.S. Census Bureau and the Economics Research Service at USDA do not offer a firm number, but it is in the vicinity of 40,000. (The ambiguity stems from what constitutes a grocery store; readers can recall stores in their own region that may fit more than one category of retail.)
With 40,000 stores across 50 states, there are opportunities for power washing contractors. A good place to start a search for potential customers is through the National Grocers Association (NGA).
NGA (https://www.nationalgrocers.org) represents 21,000 stores, which in turn account for 25 percent of retail grocery sales in the industry and $131 billion in sales. The NGA website offers a search feature that enables a visitor to query economic information by state.
We searched for information about Connecticut, and learned the state has 228 stores that generate $1.93 billion in annual revenue.
Community involvement through civic organizations is a good way to make a link to owners of independent stores. Ask them about their cleaning needs. Are they using in-house staff to clean parking lots, for instance? Some are. Would contracting with a professional power washing company be a better way to go? Perhaps it would.
Be prepared to make a case for hiring an outside professional contractor. It includes the most up-to-date equipment and techniques, as well as a narrower focus on pressure washing and the safety that derives from it.
Readers evaluating opportunities in the grocery sector will want to consult a March 2014 article in these pages by Steven Button, Power Washer’s Guidebook: Cleaning Shopping Centers (https://www.cleanertimes.com/magazine/cleaner-times-articles-2/power-washers-guidebook-cleaning-shopping-centers.) Several pieces of Button’s advice bear repeating (in the next few paragraphs).
Get clarity about displays outside a grocery store before commencing a job. Does the contractor move them and clean under and around them, or leave them in place?
If the contractor will be working when customers are visiting the store (there are 24-hour grocers), who has discretion over which area to clean first, how much space to leave for customer parking, and the like?
Does management plan to designate configuration?
Be careful when working on exterior walls. Not all windows and doors have seals to prevent a water breach.
Know the substrate. It’s not okay to simply move from concrete to pavestones without testing the reaction of the new substrate to a cleaning method. Similarly, take care not to spray awnings with chemicals if they are used.
Chemicals are more likely to be used today than just one year ago, even in some areas of exterior cleaning, and especially if it’s the outside of a grocery store. The acute interest in disinfecting and sanitizing drives the use. If adding chemicals to an approach, be sure employees are up to date on hazards, precautions, and requirements for transport and disposal.
To price-for-profit big exterior projects, encompassing some combination of walls, windows, parking lots, benches, carts, roofs, and specialty work (e.g., gutter cleaning), be realistic. Extrapolate from similar jobs in sectors outside grocery stores.
And contractors who are already certified in kitchen exhaust cleaning might want to consider how they can transfer and market their knowledge to the inside of grocery stores. Meat-cutting machines and tools, frozen food cabinets, and shelving of all kinds (e.g., dry, cold space) must be cleaned. Again, the best entry point is probably through a conversation with the owner of a store.