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Monday, July 1, 2002

Ripping Up Barstools for the Consumer’s Sake!

Who Is Right: The Customer or the Government?

Government regulations often frustrate their noble-sounding objectives, backfiring in ways that the planners who imposed them can scarcely imagine. Recently, I encountered a striking example of this generality.

There is a pizza shop in New York that I frequent, not for pizza but to read over a couple of Diet Cokes in one of the five small four-person tables in the back. Sipping Diet Coke over some good reading is one of the few pleasures I take quite seriously, and thus when I saw one of the six barstools that line the serving counter in the front of the store being ripped out, I asked the manager what was amiss. After all, if the stools are removed, the tables will be more crowded and I may have to give up my habit.

He hemmed and hawed, allowing as how people came in to talk, not just eat pizza, and sat on the barstools too long. I looked at him in disbelief. Surely, he knew that chatting and eating always go together—across all cultures—and that his business was going to be destroyed.

Seeing the expression on my face, he motioned me aside and whispered that the owner had directed him to have three or four of the stools removed because of an upcoming inspection. “What is wrong with stools?” I asked. Well, it seems that New York has an ordinance requiring dining establishments with a certain amount of seating to have restrooms for the diners. In the back there is a tiny cramped one-person restroom, but it is for employees only and it is often blocked by supplies. Indeed, the small back is filled with pizza-making supplies and equipment. The manager continued, “I need the back to make pizza: to shred the cheese, knead the dough, and the like. I just don’t have the room,” he concluded, “so, we must get rid of the stools.” (Now, six weeks later, all the barstools are gone.)

I am all for public bathrooms, and I remember with fondness the great Art Buchwald column poking fun at how difficult it is to tinkle (his word) in New York. In fact, I think dining establishments without restrooms are quite inferior—all other things being equal—and I do select where I will dine in part—if in small part—on the quality and accessibility of the restroom. In other words, having a pleasant restroom is one of the many dimensions along which dining establishments compete, and not having one at all is a clear disadvantage on the market.

But as for forcing proprietors to build restrooms when the market already allows for diners’ preferences in this matter—as it does on all other matters they consider relevant to their dining comfort—this is plain foolishness, as the case of my pizza shop shows. A small establishment will actually lose customers if it has to sacrifice that much space—seating space, food preparation space, serving space—for a restroom, and that means that on the whole customers prefer that the space be used for seating, food preparation, and serving. The thought of a dining establishment ripping up seating space up front where no bathroom will go anyway merely to avoid being classified as a sit-down restaurant subject to New York’s arbitrary rules is frankly ludicrous. After all, who is the proprietor of the establishment, the owner or the city, and who should by their dollars decide how space should be allocated, the customers who are “always right” or the government, which like a broken clock, is right twice a day?

Contributing Editor Joseph Fulda is the author of Eight Steps towards Libertarianism (Free Enterprise Press). Copyright Joseph S. Fulda 2002.