Lavato is raising the bar for hygiene and cleanliness along India’s highways. The company’s plan to expand will augur well for a generally quality-toilet-starved India.
For many, the 350 km-long journey between Chennai and Bengaluru is best done by train, despite an abundance of buses on the route and an often shorter trip by road. The reason behind this is rather simple – lack of good toilets.
Over the last few years, the route between the two cities (via Hosur and Krishnagiri) has seen several eateries mushroom along the highway. With the youth in Bengaluru heading out for trips on weekends, these joints see brisk business throughout the year.
However, despite the presence of several premium outlets such as McDonald’s, Adyar Ananda Bhavan, and Hotel Saravana Bhavan, the quality of sanitary facilities on this stretch is still below expectations.
On a return journey from Chennai, travellers would spot a new outlet near Krishnagiri called Lavato. While its logo is a clear giveaway, not many know what it is.
Lavato describes itself as a premium lavatory and lives up to expectations. The first thing a patron would see on entering the premises is a row of turnstiles, reminiscent of those inside many an information technology (IT) campus. Users buy a ticket for the service they want, swipe it at the gates, and walk through to access the paid areas.
This author dropped by at Lavato last month and got a chance to interact with its founder, Naveen Singh.
Users pay Rs 15 to use the urinal, Rs 30 for the toilet, and Rs 200 for a bath. While it might seem expensive, the real question is, is the facility worth the money?
The most common problem with public toilets is hygiene. Lack of maintenance by operators as well as misuse by the user are the root causes. However, Lavato stands apart by focusing especially on hygiene.
A graduate of the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIM-B), Singh said his motivation for starting Lavato was the lack of hygienic options available for his wife.
Inside The Public Toilet
Upon payment, users are given a receipt with a barcode to enter the turnstiles and a single tissue paper for use after washing their hands. Singh says this is necessary as people otherwise tend to waste tissue paper. Indeed, there is no toilet paper available on the inside, merely hand-showers (also known as health faucets and jet sprays in the West). For drying hands, users have a hand dryer.
An interesting point he raised was the purpose of the turnstile – to inculcate discipline.
Beyond the turnstile, there are three separate sections – one each for men and women, and the third one being a common toilet for people with disabilities. It includes ramps for wheelchairs and also has a section for children and for mothers who wish to take care of their babies.
The men’s section has a set of urinals and a closed toilet adjacent to it. Further beyond them is the shower room that is locked and only opened to those who have paid for it. All sinks are fitted with a sensor-based soap detector to ensure that dirty hands don’t contaminate it. As standard as it could get, on par with most international airports.
However, the women’s section is what truly stands out in the complex. The section is fitted with a bidet for urinal purposes, something that is rarely seen in India outside of a few homes and higher-end hotels.
Sanitary-napkin vending machines are placed that dispense pads at Rs 5 each. Separate disposal facilities have been provided everywhere for sanitary napkins and diapers.
Worth The Money?
The real question is, is the whole experience worth it? Maybe, maybe not, for Rs 15 to Rs 30 is quite a high price that people probably would not be willing to pay. But that is precisely the point. Why are people unwilling to pay for a clean and sanitary environment?
When asked about this, Singh says cleanliness is the ultimate aim. He says there are many instances of people asking for rates to be slashed, but, upon entering, get impressed by the services offered and end up conceding that the tariff isn’t too high.
But not everyone can be satisfied by quality, and for this, he says he might consider setting up a free urinal outside, but with a disclaimer – to not expect the same kind of service that the paid area entails.
Going forward, Singh says plans to have an economy version are in the offing. He adds that he has finalised nearly 80 locations near toll plazas on high-density routes such as the Mumbai-Pune Expressway for future outlets.
He explains the rationale behind choosing Krishnagiri for his first outlet. The toilet complex is located a few kilometres north of the Krishnagiri toll plaza that lies on the Srinagar-Kanyakumari National Highway (NH 44). The junction is an important one, for it connects not just NH 44 but also the Mumbai-Chennai highway (NH 48) and also the highway leading to Coimbatore and Kerala.
Work culture in the information technology (IT) sector has led to a significant increase in weekend getaways and long drives, thus making Krishnagiri a hotspot for families and the general upper-middle-class crowd. Apart from this, it is also a major intersection for a lot of Bengaluru-Chennai and Bengaluru-Coimbatore buses, especially the premium ones.
Of the new locations being considered, Singh says the main criterion is the same as Krishnagiri. While some of them will be developed by him, others will be developed on a franchise model.
Singh also added that he is looking at expanding into urban areas, mainly because he feels the Lavato model will make sense for those coming to the city for a day’s work. People could arrive in the city, use Lavato to bathe and get freshened up, and then head to work.
A Look At The Revenue Model
A part of the current outlet has been partitioned to be set up as a coffee shop for patrons. Adjacent to it is the Mangalam restaurant, among the most crowded stops in the region.
Singh says running just a toilet is not very viable and is looking to set up a cluster of businesses centred around Lavato. His plan envisions a setup similar to a food court – multiple food outlets and coffee shops all centred around the toilet. With an aim to reduce operational costs, he says he wants his patrons to enjoy a good experience in the washroom.
He adds that Lavato isn’t just a business but also a service. The board in the parking lot proudly proclaims his support for the Swachh Bharat movement across the country.
Discoverability of public toilets has gone up in the recent past. Over the last few years, numerous apps have sprung up to enable users to find the nearest public toilet. Google, too, has added this as a feature on its Maps platform. While most of them serve urban regions, Lavato serves the not-so-urban areas. Let’s hope Lavato convinces people to invest well in hygiene as well.