Few experiences are more awkward than entering a restaurant with the sole purpose of using its bathroom. There’s an entire protocol one must follow in order not to get caught: Ignore the accusatory “restrooms are for customers only” sign hanging by the entrance; walk briskly toward the back as if late for an important meeting; avoid direct eye contact with the staff at all costs; and get in and out in no more than 60 seconds.
Of course, sometimes a key is needed, further complicating the mission. Or, if it’s a Starbucks, there might be a hellish, mile-long line to endure. But despite all the obstacles and uncomfortableness involved, such insanity has become a fact of life for those living in New York, a city with a startling lack of public restroom options for its residents. That is, until now.
For $25 a month, Looie, a new app launching in mid-July, aims to give subscribers access to a growing network of sparkling-clean bathrooms at restaurants and bars in Lower Manhattan.
“I never, ever, ever thought that I would be involved with anything regarding public restrooms, but I am very much an urbanite, and I’ve been in cities all my life,” Yezin Al-Qaysi, the 27-year-old co-founder and CEO of Looie, tells the Voice. “Initially it was kind of funny, but then you realize that this is not about bathrooms. It’s about quality of life and how many people are affected by this issue.”
The concept of toilet-centric smartphone apps is not exactly new. Earlier this year, Airpnp launched to great fanfare in New York as a means of showing city-dwellers the way to the nearest lavatories in their respective areas. Flush Toilet Finder offers a similar service internationally. The toilet paper company Charmin has an app called SitOrSquat that enables travelers to rate roadside restrooms. And the new Toilet Taken App allows users to see if the bathroom in their office is occupied or vacant without leaving their desks.
But what sets Al-Qaysi and Looie apart from the pack is quality control. The app is not just a locator or a rating system, but a promise that each toilet will be completely private and perfectly pristine. Subscribers will be mailed a special key to access the bathrooms — all of which come decked out with flowers, changing tables, and other necessary yet often overlooked amenities — and for the time being Al-Qaysi will clean each facility himself.
“It’s an app that guarantees your bathroom experience,” he explains, adding that the service could become a necessity for the elderly and those battling illnesses. “We’re guaranteeing that you’re going to go and it’s going to smell great and it’s going to be super clean.”
The app is a luxury not only for users, but for restaurants and their employees as well. Much of what motivated Al-Qaysi to create Looie was the sanitation violations he saw at establishments throughout the city. No longer will an employee be in the bathroom cleaning one moment and back in the kitchen cooking the next. Though businesses are not financially compensated for participating just yet, partnering with Looie means a higher standard of cleanliness and one less task for staff to worry about.
“I think there’s a win-win-win happening across the board,” Al-Qaysi says. “It’s a better experience for the customers, restaurants don’t have to think about it, and the staff loves it.”
Leading up to the launch, Looie is allowing 500 users to pre-order the app online. Al-Qaysi has been using Mulberry and Vine on Warren Street in Tribeca as a pilot location, and will have five businesses on board in time for the rollout later this month. He then hopes to gradually expand to dozens more locations throughout the city this year.
To Al-Qaysi, the convenience and peace of mind subscribers will enjoy by using Looie is ultimately well worth the price tag.
“New Yorkers compromise a lot just living in this big urban jungle, and this is one thing that I believe that they shouldn’t compromise on,” he says. “This is something that should be constant in their lives, kind of like their morning coffee. I believe that very strongly.”