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Do Restaurants Have an Obligation to Let You Use the Bathroom?

Why some people are fighting to give restaurant-bathroom access to more people

A paper sign taped to a window that reads “Restrooms are for customers only”. Shutterstock

“Starbucks has become the public restroom of America,” wrote Harvey Molotch, co-editor of Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing. “Along with serving up a cappuccino, its management carries the burden of toilet provision, maintenance and, controversially, deciding who gets in and by what criteria.”

Molotch was responding to the 2018 arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks in an op-ed for the Washington Post. The incident itself, captured on video, had been widely circulated on social media, a clear-cut example of the racial profiling that goes on in public spaces: The two men had been waiting for their third friend to arrive when one asked to use the Starbucks restroom and was told it was customers only. They informed workers that they were planning on ordering after the last of the party had arrived, leading Starbucks employees to call the police and have the men — who were merely doing what Starbucks customers do every day — arrested for trespassing. Following the incident and inevitable blow-back, Starbucks announced a new policy allowing anyone to hang out in their stores, and use the restrooms, even without purchasing anything.

The question of who gets to be the gatekeeper of a restaurant or coffee shop restroom is a surprisingly complicated one, as Molotch addresses. On one hand, we can consider the workers and hygiene of a restroom itself (as anyone who’s been in a gross public restroom can attest, accidents do — uh — happen). On the other, we must acknowledge that most American cities have a dearth of public bathroom options, leaving many without a dignified way to relieve themselves. Then, of course, is the aspect of policing who gets to use the restroom and when, basing those decisions on corporate policy or personal biases.

Food establishments are typically the battleground for this debate, as they’re the most obvious option for a person out in public who’s in search of a bathroom, and most places require purchasing something if you want to use their toilet. Sure, you can use the tried-and-true method of “looking for your friend” in the bar, using the bathroom, and then leaving while pretending to be on the phone, but that too comes at a risk, especially for people who aren’t white, cis gender, or visibly financially comfortable. And even Starbucks, with its new “come one, come all” policy, might not be the toilet mecca it claims to be — according to a New York Post report, a number of Starbucks in New York City lock their bathrooms to everyone, or required secret codes to use them.

Erin Sheehy and Elizabeth Gumport are trying to change the conversation about public restrooms, one cafe code at a time. Their print magazine, Facility, which launched this year, looks at modern culture through the lens of the restroom; online, they provide a database of bathroom codes (mostly in restaurants and cafes around New York and Philadelphia) to ensure access for as many people as possible. We spoke with Sheehy about the restaurant world’s specific relationship to restroom access, and why, like it or not, they may have an ethical duty to let all of us in.

Eater: What inspired you to start Facility?

Erin Sheehy: At some point we realized that bathrooms were an interesting way to frame a lot of the subjects that we care about, including public space, cities, gender, queer histories, and the seemingly mundane but endlessly fascinating details of people’s daily lives. (Plus I, for one, love to talk about bodily functions.) Our first issue includes an interview with some plumbers, an essay about fluorescent lighting, a history of delousing at the El Paso-Juárez border, an exploration of the laws that led to sex-segregated bathrooms, personal stories, artist projects, and more—we even have horoscopes!

In one section of the magazine, and on our website, we provide a list of bathroom codes around New York City and Philadelphia, so that people can use the bathroom in businesses without buying anything. We update the website as often as possible, but we realize that some codes in the print mag will probably have changed by the time people read them. We hope the codes serve a practical purpose, but we also want them to start a conversation about bathroom access, and we hope they inspire people to start their own lists in their own cities, among friends, on Twitter, wherever.

When did you first realize access to bathrooms was a problem?

I probably first realized that bathroom access was a problem as a teenager, when I started wandering around the city more frequently and would find myself holding my pee till it hurt. But I remember this really crystallized for me during Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protests in New York City, when I’d be out in the street for hours and realized that if I wanted to pee or change my tampon, I would have to go buy something. And even then it could be hard to find one! It struck me that not having bathroom access can really keep people from fully participating in public life. This can be particularly difficult for people who have incontinence problems or other health issues, people with disabilities, parents with small kids, nursing mothers, transgender people or people without homes, who are often harassed when using public bathrooms. New York is a pedestrian city, a public transit-driven city, and you can spend a whole day traveling around without encountering a free, accessible restroom. It’s a real problem.

Why do you think these businesses are so reluctant to let non-customers use their facilities?

I think that businesses are reluctant to let non-customers use their facilities because it’s easier not to! And there’s no profit in it. We realize that more restroom users do potentially mean more restroom maintenance. Our call to free the codes is definitely not meant to antagonize service workers, who already have difficult jobs. I worked at Starbucks. I remember having to do “Star Walks.” (That’s what they called it when you had to go wipe up the spilled milk and sugar, take out the trash, and check out the bathroom to see the damage.) Service workers have to deal with a lot, from defaced bathrooms to overdoses. But at the same time, most people use the bathroom without incident. A lot of today’s corporate policy, as well as municipal policy, urban planning, and design, is grounded in a basic distrust of people. So much protocol is about keeping people out.

Have you ever gotten in trouble for using a code at one of these restaurants without buying something first?

I haven’t personally gotten in trouble for using a bathroom without buying anything. But as a white cisgender woman I have a lot of privilege in that regard. We realize that using a bathroom without paying is riskier for some people, such as people of color or trans people, who are more likely to be harassed or policed just for being in public space, period.

Last year, Starbucks vowed to let anyone use their cafes and bathrooms, even if they weren’t customers. Have you noticed that change, or has Starbucks remained the same?

I haven’t been in enough Starbucks in the last year to say whether or not their change in policy has been noticeable. I hope it has been, and that more companies follow suit. Here in New York, restrooms in parks and transit centers are often locked, and as income inequality worsens, it’s getting harder for people to pop into a place where they can afford to purchase a little snack in exchange for a bathroom key.

What’s the most common refrain you hear at a restaurant when asking if you can use the restroom?

A common refrain in New York coffee shops, and some small restaurants, is that they don’t even have a restroom for customers. I understand that employee restrooms are often tiny, they are sometimes the place where employees keep their valuables, and having customers go behind the counter can be disruptive in a busy place. Also, a lot of employee restrooms (and customer restrooms) can be difficult or impossible to access if you’re disabled. But it’s frustrating, especially at coffee shops; coffee is a diuretic—and laxative!

Do you think restaurants and cafes have a moral obligation to let anyone use their restrooms?

I think there is a moral obligation for a business to provide a restroom to someone in need, but I also think we should expand the conversation to talk about government policy and urban planning. It’s crazy that New York City doesn’t have more functioning public restrooms on its streets, in its parks, in its transit centers. (My experience is New York-centric, but it’s a problem throughout the United States.) We are, as usual, looking to the private sector to provide for people’s basic needs. Publicizing bathroom codes isn’t the solution to our dearth of accessible restrooms, but it’s something people can do right now to get by.

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