San Francisco Bay Area Company Reinvents the Restroom Trailer

A hospitality business turns trailers from the elephant in the room into showpiece facilities

San Francisco Bay Area Company Reinvents the Restroom Trailer
The Water Cottage builds out its own trailers: "Portable restrooms with design in mind."

Do you ever see someone take a picture in front of a portable restroom? Not likely. Let’s face it, even the newest and cleanest of units just aren’t that photogenic … until now.

Enter The Water Cottage in Berkeley, California, the brainchild of a husband and wife team with years of experience — not in portable restrooms, but in hospitality. “Usually (portable restrooms) are the bane of (customers’) existence. … Now they’re taking pictures in front of it,” says Tod Owsley, co-owner (with his wife, Jennifer) of a company that is revolutionizing the appearance of portable restroom trailers by fabricating restroom trailer exteriors that look like tiny (and very photogenic) houses. They call them “portable restrooms with design in mind.”

The Owsleys have decades of hospitality industry experience — Jennifer with a high-end full-service caterer and Tod with a nationwide corporate concierge. They’re also the owners of Zephyr Tents, launched in 2002, which rents luxury Sperry Tents, accessories and custom-fabricated wood furniture for weddings and special events.

As Zephyr Tents produced more special events, Owsley realized they were always the first vendor on site for setup and often dealt with the restroom trailer placement for the event. 

What they learned quickly, however, was that even though restrooms are a necessity, they were often an afterthought or a nuisance during planning. Clients were “always asking us to hide the restroom trailers — looking to cover 'the big white elephant.'”

“I just got to a point (where I figured) there’s got to be a better solution to this,” says Owsley. “We didn’t see anything out there.

“At Zephyr Tents, we already custom build and fabricate a variety of items for events (such as farm tables and furniture made of reclaimed wood). If a client comes to us looking for something unique for their special event or wedding, we will fabricate it for them, whether it’s a platform over their fountain for a one-of-a-kind ceremony experience or building a custom deck for dining over a pool.”

Armed with their craftsmanship and hospitality skills — and starting to do a good bit of research on the portable restroom business — the Owsleys decided to give their idea a try. In 2014, they launched The Water Cottage (WC) — the name is a play on “water closet."

They started out with a sight-unseen purchase of a used 18-foot unit. “Once we received the trailer, we realized it had a lot of water damage from being used in the southeast region of the U.S. We started pulling it apart, having to rebuild 90 percent of the trailer to correct the damage and create our first trailer,” Owsley says.

“We wanted to offer a portable restroom that would complement a wine country estate as well as a modern house in a city. We picked a design that wasn’t going to be too outlandish; the goal was an aesthetic that would blend with its surroundings. We wanted to have a cohesive look throughout our trailers.”

The WC inventory — two 12-foot, two 16-foot, and two 18-foot units — features board and batten trim, windows with a flower box, and galvanized metal accents. The trailers tires are hidden with a coordinating trim piece, and the stairs are retractable.

Other amenities include vessel sinks, Carrara or custom-made redwood slab vanity tops, laminate hardwood flooring and wainscoting, high-quality soaps, and linen-like hand towels. Additional features include mirror cabinets in the bathroom stalls, LED lighting, air conditioning, hot water and a sound system.

While the Owsleys purchase traditional restroom trailers, they do all of the design and build-out work themselves. “We wanted to create a new style of portable restroom trailer that could actually get people excited about renting (portable restrooms). Our long-term plan is to fabricate all aspects of the trailers in-house, enabling us to fully customize the trailer to our specs.”

And so far, so good. Units have been consistently rented, especially during events season in April to November.

“We’ve learned to anticipate what our clients want and see how to then logistically make it work for their event,” he says. “We have someone from our office go to every event site to make sure the trailer will fit and how to get water and power for the WC.

“It’s going well. We are based in the San Francisco Bay Area and service all surrounding regions, including the Napa and Sonoma wine countries, Carmel Valley and Lake Tahoe. We have also traveled with our trailers many times to Southern California.”

Having worked in the events industry in the Bay Area for decades, the Owsleys were armed with a long list of wedding and corporate planners, wineries and special event venues. “We knew the channels to go through to get people to see the WCs,” Owsley says. “We direct marketed to those people and did it very slowly.”

The WC trailers “do rent for more than a traditional trailer, based on what we do to them,” Owsley notes. “These definitely have more upkeep; it is like a tiny house on wheels.” As they are transported to sites, “People honk, give us the thumbs up. … People wonder what it is.”

And while the units have been in demand, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been challenges. After all, the Owsleys had no previous experience in portable sanitation.

“Although the overall construction of a restroom unit is fairly straightforward, we did have a learning curve to overcome, such as servicing the units and understanding what type of toilet paper is acceptable. One memorable learning experience was troubleshooting a clogged toilet water intake hose. We didn’t check the homeowners’ hose to make sure it was clear of debris, and it clogged the flow of water to the toilet. 

“Right before the event was supposed to start, my crew had to dismantle the toilet and clear the screens. In the end, the clients didn’t know anything was wrong, and the event went off without a hitch,” Owsley says.

“We feel that having not been a part of the restroom business initially helped us. We weren’t constrained by the industry norms, and we’re able to come at this from a different perspective.”

Based on their current success, the Owsleys are open to seeing where this new business goes. “We really try to be calculated about our growth and how we go into different territories. We plan on expanding throughout California, Arizona, Oregon and Washington as well as custom building WCs for wineries and special event venues in the future.” 

And while they aren’t the only ones crafting unique exteriors for portable restrooms, the Owsleys are pleased with the fact that they saw a need, addressed it and now are succeeding in that niche.

“What we’re hoping for is to change the way people perceive portable restrooms, and we are a leader in this field.”



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