I always expect to have restroom access in a coffee shop if I’m a paying customer, but what about using them when you’re not? Do coffee shops have to provide you with toilet access in every circumstance?
Coffee shops are private property, so have no obligation to let you use the toilets, especially if you’re not a customer. However, people with certain medical conditions do have a legal right to use a toilet, and paying customers would expect to have access, so coffee shops must provide them.
So if you’ve ever been bursting to use the restroom and have ducked into a coffee shop and bought a latte just so you can use the can – this article will help you understand your rights (or lack of them)…
Can a Coffee Shop Legally Refuse to Let Someone Use Their Restroom?
A coffee shop is private property, so it gets to decide who does and who doesn’t enter the building, and for what purpose. So yes, the staff can legally refuse to let you use the restroom.
However, there is a moral case that private spaces like coffee shops and restaurants should allow people to use their restroom facilities.
The US has only 8 public toilets per 100,000 people, which ranks us as one of the poorest countries in the world for available bathrooms (as a comparison, Australia has 37 and Canada 18).
Whether rightly or wrongly, businesses like coffee shops have stepped up to fill this gap, and without them, many of us would struggle to find a restroom while we’re out.
Advocacy group the American Restroom Association campaigns for easy access for all to bathroom facilities. This group feels that without access to proper public toilets, using the bathrooms in places like Starbucks is the only immediate solution.
Is It Against the Law to Deny Someone the Bathroom in a Coffee Shop? (if Not a Customer)
While the coffee shop can decide who enters the premises, as is its legal right, there are some groups of people who must be allowed access to the bathroom, by law.
There are 16 states in the US that abide by what’s called the Restroom Access Act. This allows people with certain medical conditions to have access to a company’s bathroom, including the staff restroom if that’s the only option.
Even then, the staff can refuse on reasonable grounds, for example for safety and security reasons (if there’s no one available to escort the person to the bathroom, for example).
Is It Acceptable to Walk Into a Coffee Shop Just to Use the Toilet?
Given the lack of public toilets in America, walking into a coffee shop to use the restroom may feel like the only option. The coffee shop is well within its rights to refuse you entry; however, some places are absolutely fine with this.
The general feeling seems to be that if you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. But, try to choose a larger chain restaurant like Starbucks rather than a smaller independent establishment, because the bigger places expect people to do this.
Starbucks famously made its restrooms (and restaurant spaces) available to everyone as part of its Third Place Policy in 2018.
This was following the arrest of two Black customers who asked to use the toilet in a Philadelphia Starbucks, which resulted in a lot of adverse publicity for Starbucks and made the company review its practices.
However, recently the company seems to be rowing back on its available restroom policy, although there’s been no official statement from Starbucks.
Can I Use the Toilet in a Coffee Shop With Young Children?
You don’t have an automatic right to use the toilet in a coffee shop, just because you’ve got the kids with you.
However, staff are more likely to be sympathetic towards a parent clutching onto a desperate toddler. Those toilet training days are tough, and sometimes you simply have to sprint for the nearest bathroom.
Again, places like Starbucks are safer bets, plus, they’re more likely to have kid-friendly facilities.
In a smaller restaurant, you may end up changing a diaper on the bathroom floor (baby changing stations are mandatory in some states and federal buildings, but you won’t always be lucky enough to find one…).
How Many Toilets Does a Coffee Shop or Cafe Need to Have?
As a general rule, a restaurant should allow for one toilet for every 30 women users and one for every 60 men. There also must be provisions made for disabled users, which must be clearly signed.
There are some exceptions, such as for very small establishments, which may be allowed to have a single, unisex restroom (although this has to be accessible).
Building codes stipulate what toilet facilities any public premises should have. The codes can vary between states, so here’s California’s public restroom regulations as an example.
Restaurants, coffee shops and other eat-in food facilities must provide clean restrooms for customers and guests. For larger buildings of more than 20,000 square feet, there should be at least one separate restroom for men and one for women; smaller buildings meet code if they provide one single-occupancy restroom. Buildings of less than 20,000 square feet constructed before 2004 do not have to provide public restrooms but they must alert customers to this fact with prominent signage. Where there’s no public restroom, it’s up to the individual establishment to decide whether it lets customers use the restroom facilities meant for employees.LegalBeagle.com
Is There a Human Right to Go to the Toilet? (That Coffee Shops Should Adhere to)
There is a human right to sanitation, yes; however, how far this goes towards walking into a restaurant’s restroom is more of a gray area.
In federal law, businesses have to provide decent restroom facilities for their employees. However, they are not obliged to provide them for customers (although some states do have their own regulations on this).
It can be really difficult to find an easily available restroom when you’re away from home. It’s also understandable that coffee shops don’t want to become public toilets, which doesn’t create the best ambience for their actual customers.
The approach varies between establishments, which is why chains with clear policies like Starbucks actually provide a genuine public service.
If you want to go to the bathroom and can spend a couple of dollars, you can always treat yourself to a cup of joe then use the restroom as a proper, paying customer.
While we realize that this isn’t always possible, it is a workaround. (Just bear in mind that caffeine is a diuretic, so you may need the bathroom again soon if you choose to have a cup of coffee).
And simply out of interest, here’s an unusual coffee shop. This establishment in London, UK is actually a converted public restroom! Check out that distinctive decor…