Restroom attendants: demeaning? One trendy restaurant is flushing them

NEW YORK - JANUARY 31:  A pedestrian walks past the front of the SoHo restaurant Balthazar Janauary 31, 2003 in New York City. The French style bistro...
Balthazar, a French-style bistro in Soho, New York City, is eliminating its restroom attendants after a customer said he felt it was a demeaning job. Keith Bedford

Restroom attendants at Balthazar, a trend-setting French-style bistro in New York City, will soon be relieved of their duties after a customer said he felt it was a demeaning job.

Henry Blodget, founder and editor of Business Insider, published an account on his influential business web site of his uncomfortable encounters with bathroom attendants at the restaurant in the upscale Soho neighborhood.

He described the class-based guilt he feels each time he is greeted by some "poor guy" in a tuxedo with the "terrible job" of standing in the men's room all day to turn on faucets and hand out towels.

"Then I think, 'And now this poor fellow is going to have to stand there, three feet away from me, and watch me pee,'" Blodget wrote.

"'And he is somehow going to have to do that while not feeling degraded and uncomfortable. Meanwhile, I'm going to have to stand there and pee in front of him. What if it takes a few seconds? Am I going to start to be embarrassed about that?'"

He also said he resents feeling obliged to tip for the experience.

On Monday, Keith McNally, the restaurant's owner, said in an email to food blog First We Feast, that Blodget "has a good point." He said the attendants in the men's and women's restrooms will be taken off the job in a few weeks.

"Although I'm looking forward to standing at Balthazar's urinal without another man staring at me I'll very much miss my bathroom attendants. They've been absolutely wonderful people to work with," McNally was quoted as saying on the blog.

McNally could not immediately be reached for a comment and it was unclear how many attendants would be affected and whether they would be given other jobs.

FILE-During the go-go years of the 1990s, Merrill Lynch’s Henry Blodget was a superstar. As head of the firm’s Internet Research Group, he was the...
Henry Blodget, a former hot-shot dot-com analyst, wrote that he felt restroom attendants were demeaned by watching him urinate at the Balthazar restaurant. So the job is being eliminated.

Since Balthazar opened in 1997, its mirrored, warmly lit dining room has been a favorite of the city's business and cultural elites, and it remains to be seen whether other restaurants, hotels and performance spaces with restroom attendants will follow McNally's lead.

After the announcement, Blodget, who had called for the total elimination of the practice everywhere, seemed taken aback at the rapid early success of his campaign. In a new post on Business Insider on Monday morning, he said he hoped the restaurant would keep the employees on as waiters. 

But many bathroom attendants consider their job an important service and one once received a presidential seal of approval. Last week, the New York Times wrote about a long-time restroom attendant at the famous 21 club, Lorenzo Robinson, who had recently died.

Robinson, known as "The Rev," because he was an ordained minister, had told the newspaper in 2004 that his father, uncle and nephew all worked in the bathroom at 21. The Times quoted Shaker Naini, a longtime greeter at 21, as saying Robinson had met ex-presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton and had conversations with them all.

Naini said when Reagan tried to turn on the faucet to wash his hands, Mr. Robinson said: “Please, Mr. President, I have to do that for you.”

Reagan handed Robinson his cuff-links with the presidential seal and Robinson wore them to work every day after that, Naini said.