Imagine this: The party’s ready to start. The food’s on the table, the music’s playing, the bar is set, the host and hostess are dressed to the nines … and the Harvey’s Honey Hut portable toilet is discreetly placed and ready for immediate use.
Welcome to how some people are entertaining on the North Coast, where water supplies are so short and penalties for using more than their share of water can be so steep that some plan-ahead folks are, indeed, renting porta-potties to help accommodate an overflow of guests.
Those one-day or weekend rentals are among the drought-related sources of increased business for Jennifer and Harvey Smith, who have owned and operated the firm for nearly 35 years.
Although they declined to disclose annual revenues or profits for the family-owned firm, they said they’ve bought about 120 new toilets since January, plus 30 hand wash units.
During the drought, the Smiths also have been renting their modern-day outhouses to various water-conscious businesses, groups and agencies, such as the Cambria Community Services District and the San Luis Obispo Coast District of State Parks, including Hearst Castle.
The couple met about 36 years ago (her daughter was on his Little League team). They married and moved to Cambria soon thereafter.
They began their company after buying what was then a struggling business that rented porta-potties. They immediately changed the name, Jennifer Smith said in an email interview.
“I wanted something really cute and unforgettable, ergo Harvey’s Honey Huts,” she said.
Their business now has five trucks and more than 1,100 portable toilets that, when not in use, are stored at a large private ranch. Daughter Amy Smith Ridgway is the accounts manager/special events coordinator.
Customers often place their orders a year or more in advance, which helps the Smiths allocate their stock and figure out how many more units to buy each season, usually 100 or so at a time.
Large, open-ended contracts, such as the drought-related one that has Harvey’s units in three separate State Parks locations, can throw that preplanning askew, at least for a little while. But the Smiths are used to it.
The firm’s five employees deliver, set up, maintain, clean, remove and dump the units, and then they haul the sewage daily to a treatment facility in Santa Maria. Once the Los Osos sewage treatment plant is functional, Harvey’s will be able to dispose of its sewage there, said Jennifer Smith, the firm’s chief executive officer.
The units range from a basic construction-type porta-potty to luxe “solar trailers” (two-room units with flushing toilet, sink, large mirror, light and ventilation fan) and the ultimate posh “celebrity trailers” (three big separate rooms, each with a 4-by-5-foot mirror, air conditioning/heat, a large sink and “all the toiletries you’d have in your home,” Jennifer Smith said).
Those celebrity, special-event toilets cost the firm about $70,000 each, Harvey Smith said, and handicapped versions cost two to three times that much.
“It costs a lot of money to get into the business,” he said. But if the units are well maintained “and the customers don’t destroy them, you can get a good four years out of them.” That’s because “the special-event toilet of today becomes your construction unit tomorrow.”
The firm’s season has stretched from a mostly summertime and construction-season business to at least eight months a year, and during the season, they work every day.
“There are lots of details in dealing with portable sanitation,” Jennifer Smith said.
Harvey’s service area extends from southern Monterey County to northern Santa Barbara County.
At special events, such as a fair, concert, large wedding or bike race, one or both of the Smiths are there.
“I call it quality control,” Jennifer Smith said, “Harvey calls it control freak. Whatever you call it, I love what I do, and you know it’s not glamorous work.”
He said they’ve worked well together for all these years.
“She takes care of the units on the inside … and stocks them with everything from bobby pins to Advils. I’m there so if there’s a mechanical failure, I can repair it.”
Harvey’s also provides units for military, agricultural, wildfire and other emergencies and many other clients.
“I’d say our business is about 60 percent construction, 40 percent special events,” Jennifer Smith estimated.
They do multiple weddings each weekend and even some special events during the week now, Harvey Smith said.
Of course, they get some odd requests. Harvey Smith said that occasionally, customers “want us to put our units in hidden-away, out-of-the-way places. Sometimes, it’s just impossible. I tell them, ‘If toilets could fly, we could do that for you. But they don’t.’ ”
Part of their success rests firmly on their community donations: to Pinedorado for a quarter century, to the San Luis Obispo Symphony for 22 years, Cambria’s July Fourth celebration for about 30 years, among others. Just about any worthy event in Cambria gets free use of Honey Huts.
Providing portable toilet services is a very competitive business, Jennifer Smith said, adding that one firm has been trying to buy Harvey’s for several years.
But even though the Smiths are in their 70s, they’re not ready to retire.
“I love the excitement and ever-changing face of our business,” Jennifer Smith said. “No two days have ever been alike. We plan to keep the business until our manager says, ‘Done!’ ”
“Our logo is a heart,” she added. “We have put our hearts into our business, and I am not ready for a transplant yet!”
“We’ve weathered all the storms, the ups and downs in the economy,” Harvey Smith said. “It’s just the nature of the business. It services the needs of the people, no matter what the economic conditions might be.”
And what have the Smiths learned during this and previous droughts?
“Read the contract carefully. Then read it again and ask lots of questions,” Jennifer Smith advised. “In recessions, don’t spend any unnecessary money. Keep the company in prime condition. And have good equipment, great employees.”