Restroom Rights

New Year’s resolutions, like pregnancies, are best not announced right away, just in case. But a couple of months have passed and this week’s events have brought my pledge to the fore. “In 2009, I will not dine at any restaurant that tells me about its bathrooms before it describes its food.”

Restrooms For Customer Use Only? Thanks, but no thanks.

I’ve known downtown merchants who lose sleep over what takes place inside their bathrooms, so I’m not unsympathetic to the plight. I ask only that they use the same creativity controlling their restroom rules as they use managing their staff and supplies. Any restaurateur who tells me about their restrooms before they’ve laid eyes on me, I submit they may be in the wrong line of work. A key at the counter is OK with me. A sign on the outside door is not.

Access to restrooms is a hot topic when the weather stays cold. A restroom can offer the destitute two things they most need: some rest and a room.

A homeless friend of mine recently borrowed a bathroom key so he could sleep for a while during a cold night because he couldn’t gain entrance to a local shelter that night. He slept another night in a doorway to a fast food restaurant, as if he was standing (or sleeping) in line to be their first customer of the morning. He drank their first cup of coffee that morning.

That fast food chain never announces their bathroom policy on their entrances. It must be company policy not to post a “Keep Out” sign beside their “Welcome” sign. Makes sense to me. That same chain has built playgrounds to attract families, who can and do loiter for hours after purchasing only a couple dollars’ worth of food. How many tikes have left these restaurants after expending more calories than they consumed?

No matter, because the food service business is only secondarily about sustenance. Hospitality comes first, especially if there’s any opportunity for tipping, tip jars at counters included. A notice outside the threshold identifying who is welcome and under what conditions is not very hospitable.

Whiteaker neighbors are struggling with the lack of facilities available to the homeless who frequent their streets. While some neighborhoods lobby the city for signage to remind each passerby to “curb your dog,” Whiteaker residents wonder how to ask people to curb themselves.

“People just pull down their pants and do their thing,” said Whiteaker resident Kent Fleming. “”It’s kind of unbelievable.”

Fleming and his neighbors would like to see the city build and maintain public restrooms near Scobert Park, but anything that can withstand the abuse such a facility would receive won’t come cheap. Portland recently made headlines with free-standing public restrooms. They even have a name: The Portland Loo. They are solar-powered, self-cleaning, and they cost $140,000 apiece. That’s a relative bargain, believe it or not. In 2004, Seattle installed five space-age toilets in their downtown. Cost: $6.6 million. The city has since removed and sold them on eBay.

Maybe there’s an opportunity for entrepreneurs in this collective commode crisis. What sort of accommodations do you suppose Dutch Bros. Coffee could provide at its 24-hour locations, if the city offered them $140,000?

Starbucks has been closing locations faster than opening them for the first time ever, so they are retrenching their highfalutin concept. This fall they will be rolling out their own brand of instant coffee for a dollar a cup.

Has anyone thought to approach Starbucks about building instant coffee kiosks, where a dollar gains you access to a private restroom for 60 seconds, plus a packet of instant caffeine? “A john and a joe. Instant relief. One minute, one buck.” If they can’t make money pouring more caffeine into us, maybe they can make money by taking it back.

Me, I’m not a coffee drinker, but I know how caffeine can make the mundane seem urgent. This resolution of mine is certainly of the mundane variety — I’m not laying plans to take on “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service.” It’s a small thing. But if your pee policy comes before your chef’s special, I’ll take my appetite elsewhere.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) consults for restaurants and other small or civic-minded businesses. He blogs and writes from The Register-Guard each Friday.