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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Poles Turn Public Toilets Into Profit

WARSAW -- In a public bathroom downtown, Agnieszka Siemiatkowski is having a lovely lunch of Polish dumplings with a side salad and a piping hot cup of tea.

She finds nothing unusual in this.

"Delicious," she says of her meal. And her surroundings? "Very nice."

Indeed, they are. The walls are a marbleized baby blue. The tables are bright and shiny. The kitchen is spotless. And the toilet, well, that's just fine, too.

The public bathroom - that foul-smelling bane of municipalities everywhere - has branched out in the try-anything capitalism of new Poland.

"Public bathrooms are not profitable," said Eugeniusz Gora, Warsaw's public bathroom tsar. "We wanted to keep public toilets but expand their activities because we didn't have the money to maintain them."

So they are now luncheterias, Chinese restaurants, pubs, even vet's offices - all the while retaining their, er, basic function.

"We've had two kinds of reaction," said Marcin Affek, who in May opened the Lunch Time Bar in a bathroom on a traffic island in the city center. "Some of the older people would come down, hit their foreheads, and say 'What is going on?' But the younger people thought it was very cool. And we're doing great business with all the office workers around here."

It no longer looks like a public bathroom except for the grim march down a narrow staircase from the street and the black-and-white "WC" sign that, by law, must remain on display. Affek's eatery, except for its underground location and lack of sunlight, is every bit the Warsaw diner. The toilet is discreetly nestled by the entrance, around a slight corner from the eating area.

"The biggest psychological barrier for the customer is the walk down," Affek said.

In 1994, Gora's state agency, charged with picking up the trash and maintaining public restrooms in the city, was in a cash crunch. The restrooms were falling into disrepair when a bright thinker at the agency - Gora doesn't recall who - thought of advertising them as business places to the city's army of striving entrepreneurs.

The mantra: location, location, location. After all, most public bathrooms are in areas with high pedestrian traffic or the best parks.

Since then, 28 of Warsaw's 42 public bathrooms have been leased in exchange for renovations and a promise to allow the public to use the facilities. "The rent for this location is really good," Affek said.

Gora's staff periodically visits each business-bathroom - undercover, of course - to ensure that lease terms are being maintained. "If they don't let people use the toilet," Gora said, "they risk losing their lease. Every tourist, every citizen of Warsaw has the right to use these toilets."

But an unsuspecting and desperate member of the public would be hard-pressed to know that. In a series of difficult interviews with passing pedestrians who were asked to identify a certain business, they unanimously described it as a bar - and, at the same time, came to suspect that a questioning foreigner was a lunatic:

"Excuse me. Is that a public toilet?"

"It's a blues bar," said one woman, pointing to the Blues Bar sign near the Museum of Modern Art.

"Is it a toilet?"

"I'm sure they'll let you use the toilet," replied the clearly confused woman before walking off, looking back repeatedly.

Blues Bar owner Karol Kuzmierczyk is happy to let anyone use the facilities but says few venture down the stairway just for that. "The sign has to be there," Kuzmierczyk said. "But this is a blues bar: live music, blues, rock 'n' roll. We can get 80 people in here on a Friday night."

The major losers in this capitalistic transformation are the bathroom grannies who used to sit at the doorway, clean the toilets, and traditionally charged about 10 cents for the privilege of entering. In the Darwinian world of free markets, they've lost their underground bailiwicks.

"They've retired," Gora said, without an ounce of regret.