The café trade’s customer-service policies have again come in for criticism in the press, with several recent stories about non-customer members of the public being refused use of the lavatory facilities in coffee shops. There has been the extremely embarrassing situation of an elderly pensioner in a Costa in Sussex (allegedly the second such case in that same café) and the story of a heavily-pregnant lady in Gloucester, who was refused the facilities of an independent café.
The latest stories bring back to attention two well-known opposing points of view.
Several years ago, the retail gurus considered it good practice for businesses of all kinds to let their facilities be used by all members of the public, customers or not, largely on the grounds that it got them on the retailer’s premises.
On the other hand, it is said by many frontline retailers that the situation is getting worse, because they are now being increasingly expected to provide facilities for non-paying customers, as a result of so many councils who are cutting back on the upkeep of public toilets.
In Gloucester, the pregnant lady said she was told by café staff to ‘go away’ as she was not a paying customer. The café owner later said, giving the rather inadequate excuse that he was not on the premises at the time, that in such a case, his staff should let the facilities be used. However, he also criticised the local council for not providing enough public facilities. The council in response said that many businesses are signing up to become part of the ‘community toilet scheme’, by which their facilities are made available to the general public.
This is an argument which, on the face of it, sounds very constructive. In fact, there have been a number of recent complaints by independent café owners about councils expecting them to do this, and indeed, to sign up to guaranteed ‘free loos for all’ arrangements. In return, the councils have offered to put the cafes on a tourist-board list of free facilities.
This has not gone down well with the café trade, which protests that it is just a way for councils to save money by closing down their public toilets, and shifting all the problems of cleaning, maintenance and vandalism to the private sector.
“This subject is always contentious,” said Peter Kirton of Esquires (whose business was not involved in any of the recent complaints). “Unfortunately there are elements in the general public who seem to delight in vandalising toilets and this then spoils it for everyone.
“We tend to open a new store with a free for all attitude, until this is constantly abused, and then our franchisees tend to tighten up on who is allowed access. Some use key codes, with the code printed on till receipts, others require customers to ask for a key.
“Common sense should always prevail and access should be allowed for people in need.”
It was in an East Grinstead branch of Costa which uses the receipt code system that the elderly man was refused, resulting in an extremely embarrassing consequence. A friend accompanying him said they were willing to buy coffee, but the queue was so long, she begged the manager to let them have the code first – the request was refused.
The local paper claimed that a similar incident had been reported some months previously in the same café. According to the paper, the manager said: “It is not my decision; we have been asked to say no by our head office.”
Costa answered with the following statement: “While we don’t have a set Toilet Usage Policy, we would prefer for the facilities to be used by our customers. We are mindful however of the fact that in certain situations we need to make these facilities available to everyone. We ask our store managers to act with discretion on this.
“We have found that our toilets may suffer from graffiti and general misuse. In the interest of security and cleanliness as a final measure, we may fit these toilet doors with additional security such as coded locking systems or display signs stating that they are for customer use only. While these extra measures are not typical of all stores, it is down to the store manager’s discretion as to whether they take these extra steps.”
How do coffee shops compare with the rest of the retail trade in loo policies?
Mike Bone, chairman of the British Toilet Association and head of the Loo of the Year awards, tells us:
“The ability for non-paying customers to use a retailer’s facilities varies considerably. Major retailers like Asda, Sainsburys, Tesco, M & S, and Debenhams allow all to use their toilets. McDonald’s normally allow anyone to use their toilets. Many of these companies enter the annual Loo of the Year awards, which demonstrates their pride in their facilities.
“Many other retailers do not, and my experience is that locations belonging to a group will normally have a corporate policy which is rigidly enforced by their staff. There will always be exceptions to the rule, and many staff will show compassion and allow members of the public to use even staff toilets in situations when the person needing it is obviously in distress. There are however those that will not ‘bend the rules’ as your stories confirm.
“The real issue is that provision needs to be available. Whilst historically most towns and cities also provided adequate public toilets to meet the needs of their residents and visitors, the decline in the provision of these facilities has resulted in there being ‘nowhere to go’, which is regrettably causing distress and anguish to many, particularly parents and carers and the elderly.
“The BTA’s position is that local authorities should have an obligation to provide adequate facilities in places where there is no other provision.”
The most recent café-related move on the situation comes from St Ives, where it has been suggested that cafes and bars might be encouraged to let non-customers use their facilities, in return for a reasonable charge. The public toilets in this very busy seaside town are under threat of closure because the cost of their upkeep is around £160,000 a year, but the town council only receives around £75,000 from the county authority.
The town mayor, Ron Tulley, has now said the service is vital to any tourist location, and so ways must be found to pay for them, or that new ideas must be taken up.
One of his suggestions is that pubs and cafes might be more interested in offering the general facility if it were made worth their while and covered their costs – the suggestion has been raised that café owners might provide a general public facility if the council were to guarantee them payment, or were to sanction a charge-per-visit by members of the public.
The mayor has said that he will ‘look at all options’ surrounding this idea.