“This is a business, not a bathroom” and Other Lost Opportunities

toilet paperMy family and I recently completed a summer road trip driving across 5 states in the great Northwest, visiting friends, some of America’s lesser known hot spots, and middle-of-nowhere businesses along the way. One thing we can all agree on is that road-trippers everywhere–especially those with small children–have need of convenient roadside bathrooms…probably more often than us bladder control champion dads care to admit.

We covered a couple thousand miles, so we were lucky enough to test out several rest stop, gas station, and small business’s “facilities.” (My three-year-old thought testing out and ranking the loudness of flushes was fantastic fun.)

The Call of Nature

At one stop in the middle of Oregon’s high desert we pulled off to check out a cafe with no other business for 30 miles in either direction. The cafe had a nice look to it and was special, in part, because it was literally the only thing around.

Posted on the front door, the entryway door, inside wall, and bathroom door were signs reading to the effect of, “This is a business, not a bathroom. Please use the state rest stops or somewhere else.” Bummer.

Flushing Away Golden Opportunities

As a business person, I can appreciate the fact that water and cleaning costs, and that you opened a cafe to make great muffins and espresso, not clean bathrooms.

But, I believe they (and many other businesses) are missing a golden opportunity here. The core of marketing is, “Find a need and fill it.” This cafe has found a need. They have identified that loads of well-hydrated, many-miled tourists see their inviting cafe and want to get some relief. To them the need is as clear as spotting a three-year-old doing the potty dance. It’s so clear that they put up signs about it.

When You Gotta Go…

As it is, travelers enter the establishment feeling a little guilty because even though they’ve seen the signs, when you gotta go, you gotta go. The traveler quickly scans the cafe for the bathroom door, feigns looking at a menu, meanders around with hands behind back like he’s considering the pastry in the glass, then casually makes his way to the bathroom, finally sneaking in after a pensive glance to make sure no one is looking. Then, after taking care of business, he makes as quick an exit as possible, hoping to avoid any eye contact with the staff and the possibly embarrassing scenario of being assailed for his affront.

All the while, the cafe staff is totally aware of what’s going on. They’ve seen it all before hundreds of times. In several variations. They know the traveler’s strategy, that’s why they’ve posted signs appealing to travelers’ sense of decency to make the right choice. They eye  each person suspiciously as they come in. They get frustrated that no one pays attention to the signs. They hate that they may have to verbally remind someone that, “Hey, this is a business, not a bathroom.” It’s a lose – lose.

Let It Flow

What if the cafe did something radical instead? What if they filled the need? I’m talking, really turned the situation on its head and filled the need to an extreme. What if they turned the vacant building next door into the best, nicest, cleanest bathrooms in the county? What if they made their roadside billboards tout the awesomeness of their bathrooms and then counted down the miles with travelers as they held their breathe and crossed their legs?

I believe they’d win more business, sell more coffee, be a happier staff, and get to do what they wanted the business to do in the first place. As it is, they’re turning away their most valuable asset…customers at their door who made the effort to go from 65mph to a stop, travelers who put aside their aspirations of a faster trip to instead get some relief and maybe some refreshment at this cafe. If this cafe would use this obvious need to their advantage I know they’d see more sales.

Do Your Business

What obvious needs do you see for your customers that you’re turning away because filling those needs is not your core business or because they’re not what you want to deal with? What signs have you put up that may be alienating possible customers? What have you asked your staff to enforce that you know they hate doing because the customer hates hearing it? How can you turn that on its head and create a win-win situation? Where can you give your customers some relief, freeing them up to think about what you really have to offer?


  1. Intersting post Aaron, and great point made. Peter Drucker, late management guru made the same observation about businesses that resist ‘the unexpected success’, rather than use them for innovation. Here in Nigeria, all the big highway restaurants have long since discovered the ”natural” needs of long-distance travellers and have created good restrooms to meet their needs. Maybe some travellers wont care to patronize their menu, so what? Many others will, and neglecting to satisfy such customers will just push them to the competitors next door who are more than willing to do so.

  2. Nice!
    We have this concept of Midway (approx midway between two big cities) and they are caching it on the obvious need of the call of the nature. This places are nice big Cafe/FastFood with full fledged extra clean loo (Imagine getting a clean loo in India).
    They even have free food/Snacks for Bus/Taxi drivers, an extra bonus for the drivers to stop at their place.