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How Restaurants Are Working to Destigmatize Menstrual Products

By offering free tampons and pads in bathrooms, operators are creating more inclusive spaces

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Photo: Shutterstock / Photoillustration: Eater

There are any number of reasons why someone might breathe a sigh of relief when they get to a restaurant bathroom — because they’ve escaped the overload of a noisy dining room, because they made it to the toilet before soiling themselves, or maybe, just maybe, because the restaurant has extended the idea of hospitality to their restrooms, providing not only toilet paper and fancy soap, but additional supplies that much of the population requires: tampons and pads.

“People don’t expect anything for free,” says Sara Cox, co-owner and designer of the new Middle East-meets-Northwest restaurant, Homer, in Seattle. But by setting out a glass jar of complimentary menstrual products, she found a way to bring a small bit of joy to her restaurant’s customers — by giving them something they need, that they normally have to not only pay for but make sure to have with them at the precise time they need it. It’s the same happiness that Top Chef competitor and San Diego restaurateur Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins found when she also offered products in the bathrooms of her new spot, El Jardín.

“In development, I made a list of the best things I’d seen in restaurants,” said Zepeda-Wilkins, but she quickly realized to make hers the best spot — and fit her goal of creating a matriarchal restaurant — she’d have to take inspiration from hotel bathrooms, where she’d seen tampons and pads free on counters.

Menstrual products are a hot topic these days: Many states have legislation on the books or in the works to outlaw taxes on them or require them in public schools; and universities around the country set new standards, including Washington State University, which now keeps the products stocked in women’s and men’s bathrooms, despite a vocal backlash by conservatives. People around the country have taken up the issue, fighting for free tampons and pads in bathrooms everywhere, including former Obama staffer Alyssa Mastromonaco, who wrote about getting them supplied in the White House for the Washingtonian, and activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, who wrote a book called Periods Gone Public in which she discusses menstrual equity as a financial issue.

“It makes people uncomfortable,” Zepeda-Wilkins says of discussing menstrual products — something highlighted when a big-name fine dining restaurant that provides the supplies in its bathrooms declined to participate in this story. She hopes to change public perceptions of menstruation: “It’s something we can’t control, that we’re biologically doing.”

Zepeda-Wilkins remembers having to have a secret code for needing a menstrual product as a kid (she called it “a cookie”) and seeing that, in parts of Mexico she visited, people basically didn’t leave the house until they “got over it.” As the mom of a teenage girl, the implied shame of hiding menstruation crushed her: “I couldn’t tell her she couldn’t leave or not call it what it is,” she says. She realized that the things she wanted to align with as a mom were the same as the ones she wanted to model as a mentor to her staff: “It’s about normalizing it.” Her restaurant, designed to be “the embodiment of the matriarchy” and “[to prioritize] women in the fabric of the restaurant,” needed to leave behind the patriarchal implications of shame in periods — or even just the idea that it should be a hiccup in one’s day. She wanted to make sure that a bathroom-related emergency never caused a customer to leave her restaurant — also why she has diapers and changing tables in all of the restaurant’s bathrooms (another up-and-coming restaurant bathroom trend, visible at Seattle’s nationally-lauded JuneBaby as well).

Cox, who says “I’m all about period pride,” saw the same stigmas: “Sometimes things as simple as sneaking a tampon to the bathroom can be awkward.” She had seen menstrual products at another Seattle restaurant, Harry’s Fine Foods, and latched on to the idea. As she put together the plans for what she wanted to be a true neighborhood restaurant, she knew any personal touches she could add to make it more inclusive would be important in getting customers to return. It couldn’t have been easier: She just bought a few big packages at the grocery store down the street and threw them into glass jars. “Restaurants are always tip-toeing around feelings and reviews,” she says, but nobody could complain about this — and it’s even earned complimentary mentions on Yelp and Google.

That same inclusivity inspired Cara Sandoval, the general manager of two-Michelin-starred Oriole in Chicago. After doing a free workout with the Nike Training Club, she used the bathroom there, which was stocked with hairbands, deodorant, and all kinds of things you might need after a workout. “I remember my feeling going in there being like, ‘This is so nice, they were thinking of me when they put this together.’” While it didn’t have menstrual products, when she went to translate that feeling of hospitality to the bathrooms of a fine dining restaurant, menstrual products were was the first thing she thought of (Oriole also has safety pins for wardrobe malfunctions, hair products, floss, and, famously, mints made in-house).

While neither Sandoval nor Cox noticed people walking away with any of the products, Zepeda-Wilkins says she learned a few lessons early on. When El Jardín first opened, she just put them out, and people would grab the entire stash — supplies disappeared from one hour to the next. To combat that, she found that placing a small sign behind the basket that explained why products were provided helped. The sign also explains why the restaurant chooses to offer organic tampons from Cora, which supplies pads and health education to people in need. Zepeda-Wilkins knows that providing this specific brand is above and beyond, but feels strongly about the mission — so much so that she didn’t want that to affect the restaurant’s bottom line, and thus is paying for them out of her own pocket (she estimates she spends about $70 each month). “I wanted something my daughter should use,” she says, which is part of why she’s happy to shoulder the cost for the time being. “I’m hellbent on making this happen.”

For Sandoval, the brand mattered as well, but for different reasons. As a high-end restaurant, its team wanted everything it supplied to have a feeling of luxury — the same attitude that inspired Sandoval to bring in the tampons in the first place. In fact, she says they’ve gotten more feedback from people excited about the brand they stock than that the tampons are there: Oriole stocks Lola, a subscription service that delivers all-organic products and also donates tampons to shelters around the country. While the restaurant pays $46 each month, Sandoval notes that management is excited to showcase the woman-run company, as well as to supply them to its own employees, about half of whom are women. It’s part of what she sees as the core of their business. “When we think about hospitality, we think of thoughtfulness,” she says. “And thoughtfulness, to us, is trying to anticipate people’s needs.”

In an industry focused on the guests, supplying a product that a huge swath of customers requires regularly — and the rest would barely notice if it hit them upside the head — seems like a no-brainer. “Dudes don’t care,” observed Cox, while Zepeda-Wilkins, commenting dryly on whose needs are usually prioritized, added, “Women like restaurants.”

And yet, even in national media bathroom rankings or discussions of restaurants that make and supply their own mints in the restroom, any discussion of periods is omitted — whether because it’s deemed uncouth or simply considered unimportant. But that’s exactly what people like Sandoval, Cox, and Zepeda-Wilkins are hoping to change. “People already don’t want to like us because we’re fancy Mexican,” laughs Zepeda-Wilkins. “But we’re different. We want better. We want to make this industry a little better.”

Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based writer.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan