Bob Shallit

Toilet entrepreneurs in Sacramento hope to be flush with success

Toilet Valet intends to sell highly automated public toilets that provide privacy and security.
Toilet Valet intends to sell highly automated public toilets that provide privacy and security. Toilet Valet

Two Sacramento Drexel University students have come up with a high-tech solution for a basic human need: finding a place to go when you really need to go.

For a class project, Erin Rodriguez and Jeremy LaBelle developed an app that provides instant information on the nearest public restrooms in a particular area, along with Yelp-like ratings and reviews.

Now, having won an award for their work from a local entrepreneurship support organization, they’re planning to turn it into a business – called Toilet Valet – that also includes selling pricey automated public toilets (APTs) to cities, transit agencies and others. A third student, Amanda Miller, is now part of the team.

The first order of business is perfecting the app, said Rodriguez, who is 23 and came up with the idea based on her own challenges. She has rheumatoid arthritis and lupus and is sometimes in a wheelchair, making it tough for her to roam about seeking a suitable restroom.

Other apps exist for finding public potties, but Rodriguez said the new spin here is the consumer-review component that enables users to comment on a restroom’s cleanliness as well as its safety and privacy features.

As a result, “when you go to a bathroom, you know what you’re getting into,” said Rodriguez, who along with her partners will receive her bachelor’s degree in business administration this month.

While developing the app, the Toilet Valet founders are finalizing talks with a Georgia manufacturer of APTs for exclusive rights to sell its products in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Rodriquez is not yet identifying the company but said its toilets are highly automated, with motion-sensor flushers and water dispensers along with self-cleaning features.

They also have graffiti-resistant walls – and doors that open automatically after 10 minutes to discourage loitering. The cubicles sell for about $200,000 each.

So why would a manufacturer agree to a licensing agreement with an untested group of new college grads?

It’s the app, Rodriguez said. “They liked the awareness we would be bringing to them,” she said.

Jack Crawford Jr., whose Velocity Venture Capital group gave Toilet Valet a first place award in a competition earlier this year, is enthusiastic about the company.

But he couldn’t resist joking: “There are a lot of crappy startups out there – but this one has a big market with customer demand daily.”

Parkside eats and drinks

More details are being revealed about the ambitious, three-concept bar and restaurant complex being developed by Bob Simpson and Trevor Shults in retail space adjoining St. Rose of Lima Park.

As previously reported, the two nightclub and restaurant impresarios are planning to open an Irish pub, called Malt & Mash, in part of the roughly 10,000 square feet on the ground floor of the 111-year-old Oschner Building near Seventh and K streets.

The other venues will be a “vibrant, high-energy taqueria” called El Rey and a “medium-priced, farm-to-fork” restaurant called Common Place, according to Simpson and Shults. Two of the operations – the pub and Common Place – will have spacious parkside patios.

The partners said they were eager to open a business near the future Golden 1 Center and jumped at the chance to lease space in the historic building. “I would have hated to sit on the sidelines on this one,” Simpson said.

The restaurant concepts were selected after the partners visited more than a half-dozen cities that have developed successful entertainment districts around arenas. “We took the best core concepts and put them together,” Shults said.

The partners plan a late 2015 opening for El Rey and Malt & Mash, which will feature Irish beers on tap, fine whiskeys and an Irish coffee that will give San Francisco’s popular Buena Vista Cafe “a run for its money,” Simpson said.

The partners are holding off Common Place’s debut until the fall of 2016, when the arena opening is projected to bring many more people downtown.

Until then, they anticipate some challenges filling the two first venues.

“But,” said Simpson, “that’s what Trevor is good at: Throwing a party and getting the masses.”