Nov. 19, 2013 at 11:50 AM ET
I consider myself something of an expert when it comes to public restrooms. First, I'm on the road all the time, so I visit many of them.
Second, I'm female. Women use public restrooms 3.7 times more than men do.
OK, I just made that up. But it's probably true.
Most public restrooms in the U.S. benefit from the same care and attention that went into HealthCare.gov. By contrast, I was in Japan recently, where many public restrooms combine a dizzying degree of complexity, cleanliness and efficiency.
However, American restaurant owners, gas station proprietors and anyone else with a triangle symbolizing a man and a circle symbolizing a woman are starting to get it through their heads that gross bathrooms flush away potential repeat business. They now see the restroom as a marketing tool. It makes sense. EVERYONE notices a really outrageous restroom, because it's an oddity, which is strange, considering the amount of time we spend there.
(See this year's nominees: Posh potties: Where to go when you're on the go)
Case in point: the men's restroom inside the steak house at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, Calif., has an actual waterfall for a urinal. It's legendary. Somewhere there's a photograph of me in my wedding gown back in, like, 1847, standing by that waterfall. People go there just to see the restroom. That's a marketing tool.
Turns out that very restroom made this year's list of finalists for America's Best Restroom. The annual contest is put on by Cintas, a company that sells restroom supplies, among other products. Besides the men's room at the Madonna Inn, nominees included restrooms at the Tampa Airport (an airport!), the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan and the Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade in Portland, Ore.
However, these facilities were all runners up. This year's "King of Thrones," the head ahead of all others, is the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis. The ornate and fantastical decor inside the bathrooms at the old vaudeville theater is like Harry Potter meets Alice in Wonderland on acid. Sinks are operated by foot pedal (an excellent idea, in terms of hygiene), and there's a co-ed hand washing area...which might actually encourage more hand washing, especially among men.
"Bartenders even serve drinks INTO THE RESTROOM on a back counter," said the Cintas press release that declared the Varsity Theater the champion. "For many Twin City residents, the restroom at the concert hall is as popular as the artists on stage."
Not sure the artists will appreciate the comparison. Checking the schedule I see upcoming acts include Less Than Jake, the Suicide Girls, and a show sponsored by a local record store called the "Electric Fetus." OK, well ... Cintas may have a point.
The winner was cited for its "quirky design," and the bathrooms are very different from those of last year's champion, the Buc-ee's gas station and convenience store in New Braunfels, Texas. The Texas bathrooms had clean lines, literally, while the Varsity Theater johns do not appear to have a single right angle. "What they have is more than a creative concept," said Cintas' marketing manager, John Engel. "It's an effective business tool that keeps people coming back."
Coming back? Why leave in the first place? They serve drinks there!
Let's hope this new award helps boost ticket sales to upcoming shows at the Varsity Theater, like the Italian progressive rock band Goblin, or "College Humor Live with Jack & Amir." It certainly can't hurt.
"I'm tickled pink," theater owner Jason McLean told a local TV station. "It makes me want to go to the potty."
—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells
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