SPECIAL REPORT: Is Your Restaurant at Risk? by P.J. Dempsey

Commercial uniform and linen supply services help create a clean, safe restaurant environment for employees and patrons

Early one warm Sunday morning last June, Dempsey Linen & Uniform Supply experienced a soil room fire at its Jessup, Pa. plant. The fire started in a container of restaurant kitchen towels and aprons that was picked up on a Friday afternoon to be counted and laundered on Monday morning. During the week prior, a restaurant customer of Dempsey’s had placed warm, greasy kitchen towels and aprons directly into one of Dempsey’s plastic delivery carts, rather than using the provided laundry bags. The oxidation of the greasy towels produced heat and, because the linens were piled high inside a plastic container, the heat could not escape or dissipate. By that Sunday morning, the temperature of the soiled linens rose to the point of ignition and burst into flames inside Dempsey’s plant. Thanks to fast responding emergency crews and an advanced sprinkler system that extinguished the fire quickly, damage was contained to a small area of the plant.

Spontaneous Combustion More Frequent Than You Might Imagine

Spontaneous combustion of dirty restaurant linens occurs more frequently than you might imagine, yet it’s not top of mind for most restaurant employees or managers, who are primarily concerned with putting out quality food in a pleasant setting.  Nonetheless, commercial linen service companies know only too well that dirty restaurant linens can burst into flame without any outside stimuli acting upon them.  The inability of some restaurant linen vendors to pick up dirty linen on a timely basis, coupled with employees disregarding the use of laundry bags, especially in heat of summer, can create a safety ‘time bomb’ which many, if not most, restaurant employees have no idea can even happen.

“If we had not picked up the linens on schedule, that fire would have occurred in the restaurant kitchen and might very well have engulfed the entire building before it was discovered,” said P. J. Dempsey, President of Dempsey Uniform & Linen Supply. Many substances go through a process of slow oxidation which generates heat. When cotton material such as kitchen towels comes into contact with heat-generating substances like polyunsaturated vegetable oil, bacteria slowly decompose the material, producing heat.  If, during this process, the heat is unable to escape because the linens are piled in heat-retaining plastic carts rather than heat-dissipating laundry bags, then the temperature of that material rises until it reaches the point of ignition.

“To prevent even the remote likelihood of a spontaneous combustion fire in soiled kitchen towels, it is better to take the easy precaution of using a laundry bag provided by your linen supply company, and to deal with a company that services your restaurant on a regular, fixed schedule,” Dempsey says. Dempsey offers Safety Alert bulletins to its restaurant customers detailing the cause and prevention of spontaneous combustion. Following the plant fire last summer, he says, “We go the extra mile to have our route service representatives bag any loose linen at the time of pick-up, and we do not allow carts of un-bagged piles of restaurant linens inside our plant facilities.  It’s in everybody’s best interest.”

Is Your Restaurant’s Commercial Linen Service Going The Extra Mile?

Spontaneous combustion is just one of many safety and hygiene challenges that restaurants and their suppliers must face. Most restaurant owners are surprised to hear that soiled, wet towels can combust, but most have heard of dryer fires. Most dryer fires are the end result of establishments washing their own aprons and towels. Usually, a restaurant’s washing machines and detergents do not effectively remove the grease from the towels. When the towels are dried, they are hot and contain residual grease. That is a formula for combustion. By outsourcing dirty linens to a commercial laundry service, the potential for a fire is greatly reduced, and you can get on with your core business without worrying about linen cleanliness, hygiene and safety issues.

[Editor note: What is described above is one of those déjà vu moments from my hotel food and beverage operations days. It remains a vivid memory of our laundry fire after greasy kitchen towels had come out of the dryer as the crew was ending its work day. They went hot into a rolling basket, the crew left and a spontaneous combustion fire was the end result. Well, not exactly the end result … that was the actual fire which brought the local fire department and thousands of dollars of damage to our housekeeping department. We used our linen service for kitchen towels going forward. MB]

Uniform and kitchen linens cleanliness and hygiene should never be taken for granted, and in-house restaurant laundering does not address maintenance of your linens.  A commercial linen service should stock, and replace microfiber towels, bar mops, grill rags and uniforms including chef coats and pants, aprons, butcher frocks, cook shirts (with or without buttons) and snap pocketless shirts (to help keep foreign objects out of food.) The advanced chemical laundering technologies used by commercial services ensure your linens and uniforms are always fresh and hygienically clean.

Independent studies show that restaurant customers prefer cloth table linens over paper and the EPA recommends restaurants have re-usable napkins and tablecloths to reduce solid waste. A high-end commercial linen service will keep your restaurant well-supplied with meticulously laundered, repaired and pressed table linens devoid of embarrassing stains or tears.

Reducing Slips And Falls

Other restaurant safety hazards include slips and falls both in the kitchen and on the service floor. Dry and well-maintained anti-fatigue, anti-slip floor mats provided by a commercial linen service help reduce slips and falls, and message mats that contain safety/cleanliness or quality-related reminders keep these issues top-of-mind for employees.

Restaurant managers know the importance of maintaining a clean, safe environment for their staff and patrons. Dirty, wet floor mats are not only a tripping menace, but also grow and harbor dangerous bacteria. Anti-microbial floor mats inhibit the growth of bacteria in high use areas such as behind prep-lines and bars. These mats have excellent anti-fatigue properties and their wet mat flow-through design aids in draining and cleanliness. But to be effective, mats need to be professionally cleaned on a regular basis, otherwise they contribute to the problem rather than solving it. Studies show that rental services that regularly exchange soiled mats for freshly laundered ones measurably reduce dirt and moisture. Scraper mats and walk-off mats at restaurant front doors also help reduce dirt, germs and wet being tracked through.

Microfiber mops and wet mops provided by a textile rental company also assist in reducing cross-contamination and staff safety. Microfiber mops not only remove dirt and dust particles that conventional mops leave behind, they are also ergonomically designed to reduce heavy lifting and repetitive filling of mop buckets by housekeeping staff.  Wet mops are mildew and bleach resistant to prevent deterioration and improve hygiene. They also are “green” by reducing solid waste. One rental wet mop equals 36 disposable mops, and one rental dry mop equals 186 disposables!

Restrooms Are Important, Too!

Restroom and bathroom cleaning and hygiene are every bit as important to you and your customers as are your front of house and kitchen! Your commercial bathroom cleaning supply services should include maintenance of soap dispensers, air fresheners, hand towels and tissues with certified products from such organizations as:

    • National Sanitation Foundation – NSF
    • Hazard Analysis And Critical Control Points – HACCP
    • Environmental Protection Agency – EPA
    • Green Seal Certified
    • Americans Disability Act Accessible – ADA

Ask your commercial cleaning supply company if their restroom products include automated, touch-free towel dispensers to reduce the risk of cross-contamination for a more hygienic washroom. These dispensers provide controlled, one-at-a-time dispensing to minimize waste and reduce paper costs (which affect your bottom-line), and adjustable settings for sheet length and dispensing time control usage.  Similarly, AutoFoam Skin Care Dispensers with thick, dense foaming cleaners ensure automatic, touch-free soap delivery which eliminates cross-contamination and encourages use, while controlled dispensing of concentrated soaps eliminates costly overuse and waste.   These products are a preferred environmental choice with boxless refills and biodegradable soaps which help green-focused restaurants earn important LEED credits.

Other restroom products your commercial service should offer and stock for you  include durable, hygienic plastic toilet tissue dispensers that enclose tissue to limit exposure to bowl splash, and environmentally sensitive odor control systems that don’t use aerosol propellants, added VOCs or batteries.

Beyond restaurant safety and cleanliness issues, your commercial linen service should demonstrate an innovative use of technology to solve problems that are all too prevalent in restaurant management. Bar-coded linen bags facilitate automatic flatware return of restaurants’ valuable silverware and supplies. High-tech laundering formulas and on-line access to linen usage information provide unique systems for high quality linens and cost control. The Textile Rental Service Association (TRSA) Clean Green Certification Program recognizes linen rental companies that demonstrate responsible leadership in sustainability and conservation to protect the environment. The program acknowledges a textile service company’s continuing commitment to improving efficiencies in water and energy conservation and adoption of best management practices for reusing, reclaiming and recycling resources.

P.J. Dempsey is president of Dempsey Uniform & Linen Supply, a family-owned company founded in 1959 offering restaurant linen services and uniform rentals. Headquartered in Jessup, Pa., Dempsey has a service footprint that spans seven Mid-Atlantic States, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Its $18 million commercial laundry service facility in Jessup has received national recognition for its state-of-the-art, environmentally sound processing systems. Dempsey also has facilities in Sunbury and Harrisburg, Pa., as well as Baltimore, MD. 

As a distinguished leader among linen companies in environmental stewardship, last year Dempsey became the first laundry in the United States to achieve certification in the Textile Rental Services Association’s (TRSA) Clean Green Certification Program. The company is recognized for its high quality products, industry-tailored, cost-cutting service solutions and cutting edge, environmentally friendly laundry technologies. Collectively, these business characteristics make up what is known as the “Dempsey Difference.”

For more information:  or call 800-378-8060.


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