There’s one room in your restaurant where cutting edge design will get you noticed—because all your customers will go there at some point.
Forget for a moment that you’re a restaurateur and instead imagine you’re a customer in a restaurant in New York. You picked this particular restaurant because you overheard your 19-year-old daughter raving about it on her iPhone. She didn’t mention the food, which you sample now and think is good, but not spectacular. She didn’t mention the waiters, whom you find attentive and informed, but exactly what you’d expected in a place that charges these sort of prices. The décor is trendy, a bit dark and looks expensive. No, what your daughter was raving about, and what you’re curious to see, is something more, shall we say, prosaic—the toilets.
You walk into the rest room, which consists simply of a toilet and sink in a one-way glass cubicle, with a TV showing the film Sex, Lies and Videotape (one reviewer called it ‘creepy-chic’, which is apt, as is the restaurant’s name—Peep). You sit on the can with your pants around your ankles and look out at the restaurant. You can see the diners, but they can’t see you. Peeing while watching others eat might not be your idea of fun, but you can’t deny it’s different. More importantly, it’s a talking point, and no marketing technique draws more customers to a restaurant than word of mouth.
Many of the Australian designers this magazine spoke to agreed that, with a few notable exceptions, Australian restaurants are behind the curve a bit when it comes to doing interesting things with rest rooms.
“I really do think there is great opportunity to go a little crazy in the WC and it is unfortunate that clients are often a little conservative or feel that the budget is better spent elsewhere,” says Anna di Napoli, creative director of the Dinapoli Group in Sydney. Michael McCann is one of those notable exceptions. McCann is Principal of Dreamtime, a design firm based in Sydney. He believes a customer’s experience of an establishment should be holistic, and that includes the rest rooms. But many restaurateurs have a fixed mind-set about toilets—they should be clean, functional and cheap. In other words, forgettable.
McCann wants to change that mindset. When pitching to clients, he says, “we explain that in today’s marketplace, clients expect beautiful toilets, which enhance the overall experience and promote a sense of cleanliness. If a sense of theatre—without being an RSL theme—can be added, it increases the word-of-mouth advertising of the venue, which is crucial in today’s ever-crowded marketplace. At the end of the day, it’s only after coming up with a truly exciting design that gets the client excited that you can potentially get them to approve the additional expenditure. At Flying Fish, for example, the purchase of the switchable frosted / clear glass was $80,000 alone.”
Switchable glass (also called smart glass) is glass that frosts up when you apply voltage to it. The glass that McCann put into the rest room at Flying Fish is fitted with sensors that pick up body heat. Stand in front of it, and the clear glass frosts over, giving the urinator privacy. One-way glass, popular in interrogation rooms in TV cop shows, is another material that can add a frisson to a trip to the loo. Many of the reviewers on New York’s restaurant-review websites comment on Peep’s toilets. Some love it, others loathe it, but they all take notice.
It’s easy to dismiss all this as mere gimmickry. But in an industry in which competition is as fierce as it is in the restaurant game, every single thing that sticks in your customer’s mind counts.
“When clients hear continual publicity referring to their toilets, they become very proud, which validates their decision to invest in their toilets.” Michael McCann, Dreamtime Australia Design, Sydney
“The hoped-for end result [for clients] is in the increased promotion that the investment would generate,” says McCann. “When clients hear continual verbal and written publicity referring to their toilets, they become very proud of them, which validates their decision to follow our advice and invest in their toilets.”
In other words, turn a urinal into a memorable experience, and increase your numbers. Almost certainly, no Australian designer has done more to make loos memorable than McCann. Dreamtime designed ‘peepods’ for the Argyle Bar in Sydney. Dreamtime even won a prestigious award for them—the 2008/09 Best International Kitchen and Bathroom Award at Interior Design Magazine’s (BOY) Best-of-Year Awards in NYC. The peepods’ exteriors are made of curved, illuminated glass. They look like giant schooners filled with milk, placed prominently in a corner of the sprawling bar. They get a lot of attention: some patrons take photos and upload them to social networking sites.
There’s been a bit of trend towards unisex toilets over the last decade, but there’s a lot to be said going the other way, too. That is, emphasising the gender of each toilet. For instance, you could do fun things with lighting in front of the mirrors in ladies’ rooms, where women apply make-up.
The range of things you can do to make your restaurant’s toilets memorable is limited only by your budget and perhaps your sense of humour. Motion-sensor faucets, extra-wide toilet seats, heated toilet seats, one-way glass, electric glass, themed toilets (one Sydney bar has made each cubicle a mini Versailles, with hung chandeliers and silk tents from the ceilings), toilets with views, toilets with TV screens showing art-house films. But a rest room is still a rest room. You don’t want customers to get too comfortable in there. McCann offers the following cautionary tale: “On a recent design, we were working with one of Australia’s most famous chefs/restaurateurs. He had us remove a beautiful armchair that we had designed in each large toilet room. He said that as it was such a special occasion to dine in his restaurant, many women oftentimes would not eat on the day they were to dine in his restaurant to be able to fully enjoy their dinner, only to become very drunk after a few drinks because of it and fall asleep in [the armchair] in their locked toilet.”