— By FRED GOLDENBERG
Special to the Record-Eagle
While watching the "Today Show" the other morning, I was intrigued by a report about a woman being charged $5 by a restaurant for using their restroom. It seems that a Ms. Patricia Barnes was in need of, shall we say, relief, went into a restaurant, asked permission to use the facility and went and took care of business.
Several days later she received a handwritten bill in the mail from the owners of the Flood Gate restaurant in Erin, Tenn. for $5 for “her restroom break” as she was a non-customer and the restrooms are for customers only. To say the least, she was flabbergasted. She couldn’t believe that they had sent her a bill and more to the point, that they had tracked her down by copying her license plate number and having the local sheriff trace its owner.
I’ve heard of speed traps, but a pee trap is a new one on me.
According to Barnes, after being chased down by the police, she tried to pay up, but the restaurant changed its mind (especially when a "Today Show" camera crew showed up) and (off-camera) said it was only trying to make a point that its restrooms were for paying customers only. Heck, if the cops chased me down for failure to pay my peeing ticket, I’d try to pay it as well.
The next segment was a cooking segment with celebrity chef and restaurant owner Bobby Flay. When asked what he thought of the last segment, he said that charging people to use their restroom was “totally ridiculous” and it was just part of doing business. So to many restaurateurs, letting people do their business is just part of doing business (sorry, I couldn’t help it).
Anyone who works in downtown Traverse City, as I do, can attest to the fact that during peak summer vacation time, just trying to walk down Front Street can be a chore. The throngs of tourists might be trying, but just seeing a thriving, vibrant downtown is fantastic.
Last year, there was a push by the Downtown Development Authority to provide additional public restroom facilities. They offered a financial incentive to any business that would allow the public to use their restrooms without being a paying customer. Only two, Espresso Bay and Subway, opened their doors to non-paying tourists. For allowing their restrooms to be used, the DDA provided monetary relief for maintenance of the facilities.
Rob Bacigalupi, deputy director of the DDA, said that as a pilot program, it had some success and that the two restaurants will continue to make available to the public their facilities through the 2013 summer season. I give kudos to the DDA and both restaurants for their foresight. I don’t know the numbers of those who took advantage of the facilities, but I’d assume that while waiting for those using them, others spent money on beverages or food at the same time.
Traverse City has become a destination city for people from all over the country. Our summer season, although the biggest, isn’t the only time people visit our beautiful corner of Michigan. Having adequate public facilities is essential to a healthy tourist economy. It might be more important in the off months (if there are any anymore), due to the closing of some of the public facilities because of weather and location.
I suspect that there are many businesses which, if a tourist came in and asked to use the restroom, wouldn’t turn that person away but don’t advertise the fact. I’ve also seen several with signs posted which say “no public restroom available." I realize that there are some stores that are just not conducive to allowing a flow of people in to use the facilities because of the type of merchandise sold or location of their restrooms. But there are many others that could and should post a welcome sign and open their doors to the public. Restroom use is a byproduct of a service-driven economy and if embraced, we should all be flush with success.
Fred L. Goldenberg is a Certified Senior Advisor and the founder of Senior Benefit Solutions, LLC, a consumer and financial services organization in Traverse City. If you have any questions or comments about this article or any senior issue, he can be reached at 922-1010 or email@example.com.