It wasn’t a conspiracy, and it wasn’t by design. There were no portable toilets at the Solano Stroll on Sunday due to “a simple error,” event organizer Allen Cain of the Solano Avenue Association told Berkeleyside this week.
Exactly whose error is a matter of dispute. Cain said he emailed in the toilet order months before the huge annual event. The alleged service provider says no order was received.
Cain, who has spearheaded the Solano Stroll for nearly a decade, said he makes all the arrangements the prior April — five months in advance — to ensure he has all the rental supplies he needs. The toilets are usually set up Saturday, the day before the Stroll, to avoid vandalism to the units or to the properties around them.
(Berkeleyside first reported on the missing toilets Monday.)
Saturday, Cain said he was on the avenue at 5 a.m. to mark off the street with chalk, to prepare for the event, before traffic got in the way. Around 11 a.m. or noon, he said, he started wondering where the toilets were. He wasn’t too worried, though, because they sometimes don’t show up until 8 or 9 p.m.
“At about 3-4 o’clock, we start to get a little nervous,” he said Tuesday night. Organizers tried to call the rental service to find out what was going on. But Cain said they could only reach an answering service. The answering service said it had two numbers for United Site Services, the rental company Cain said he ordered the toilets from. But both numbers went to voicemail, and that voicemail was full.
Cain then decided to call Honey Bucket, another provider, to see how much it would cost to put in an order there. He was told the bill — considering the timing — would be $11,000. (The typical toilet bill for the event is about $4,000.) He said he considered making the deal, but was concerned United Site Services — the event’s longtime Porta Potty vendor — might still come through at the last minute.
“Well clearly they didn’t,” he said. “It has been a very interesting experience. And when the shit hit the fan, the merchants came through.”
Cain said he and the Solano Avenue Association board president discussed the issue late Saturday night. They decided to put out an email to merchants and others to let them know there was a possibility the toilets would not arrive.
At 6 a.m. Sunday, he and others made the rounds to all the merchants and restaurants on Solano to tell them, “we’re in trouble,” and ask them to open up their restrooms if they could. It’s a move they don’t usually make, but Cain said many local businesses stepped up to respond to the community’s need.
The association also went to Costco and stocked up on extra toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and distributed them to restaurants up and down Solano. Some businesses — Boss Burger, Little Star Pizza and Cafe Eugene — even posted signs saying their restrooms were open to the public.
“That’s a huge risk for a restaurant,” Cain said.
Organizers also gave police a list of 20 businesses that had restrooms open for public use.
“We went to great lengths to make sure all of those restrooms were wheelchair accessible, and make sure they were stocked,” Cain said. “It was 20 times the work not having portable toilets.”
Cain said he did get one complaint about a person urinating outside, and had gotten about a dozen emails from people who wanted more information about the missing toilets. Many seemed to think the association had been trying to save money with the move, which Cain said was not at all the case.
He said he got positive feedback, too: A number of restaurants told him they had done more business than usual because of the missing portable toilets.
And a dentist who opened up to allow bathroom use told Cain two visitors had expressed interest in making future appointments there after using her facilities. One even left their insurance information to find out if the provider was one the dentist accepts, Cain said.
Cain said the biggest lesson learned for him is to nail down the toilet order confirmation in advance so as not to have to rely on a weekend answering service-type situation.
But he also said it was not acceptable to him that he hadn’t been able to reach the business over the weekend despite repeated attempts. Had there been an emergency with delivered toilets — had they been knocked over by vandals, for example — there would have been no way to get help, he added.
So, is there a paper trail? Cain said Tuesday night he was still recovering from all the work it takes to organize the Stroll, which the association bills as the East Bay’s biggest street festival. He said he is not interested in tracking down a copy of his email order, but does believe he sent it. He noted, too, that he doesn’t always keep his emails.
United Site Services, he added, has handled the Stroll’s account for more than a decade and has “always been great.”
United Site Services regional sales manager Bruce Frank said this year’s order simply never came in.
“We record all calls and document all quotes and orders in our system and there is no record of the organizers contacting us for 2016. Perhaps the volunteers forgot to coordinate and order from anyone at all?” Frank said by email.
Cain said, in the end, he would take responsibility for the screw-up.
“This happened under my watch, I’m the captain of my ship and the ship took on some water. But at the end of the day, it’s still afloat,” he said. “The merchants opened up their doors to the public. And next year we’ll have portable toilets.”
Cain continued: “It was an awesome event: Not a single injury. Not a single felony arrest in two cities, and not a single incident or arrest or ticket issue that had anything to do with missing portable toilets.”
Update: Asit Goel, VP of marketing for United Site Services, provided the following statement to Berkeleyside on Sept. 14. It appears below in full.
First off, let me say that we at United Site Services value our customers deeply and take any instance of event guests being inconvenienced seriously. Secondly, I am working with my local operations team to use this as a learning moment. Our processes are designed to ensure customers receive the services they have requested. In this case, there may have been a lack of communication back from the event organizers (as Mr. Cain has noted) which resulted in the unfortunate situation. Nonetheless, my operational team will review what happened to see if there is something we could have done differently.
Finally, we at USS understand the multitude of priorities event organizers have on the day of the event, and do our level best to accommodate minimize the burden on them. While the event (and the inconvenience) is past for this year, I’d like to assure you that we are committed to support the Solano Stroll in future years. Our commitment is there not only because we value our customers but also because we value our communities. I have approximately 27 associates who live/ work in the local community. They take pride in their community being shown at its best. Via your publication, I’d like to express to your readers that while we never had the approved order from the organizers, we will be working to make sure things go smoothly next year.
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