Condoms and AIDS: How Safe is 'Safe'? : Selling of Condoms Is the Talk of the Town

Times Staff Writer

Peter Morton installed a condom vending machine a few months ago in both the men's and women's bathrooms of his Hard Rock Cafe, the raucous restaurant-bar that draws a packed crowd of young, pretty people.

"I think people are used to them," he explained, adding that he's had no complaints from customers. Making condoms available, he points out, supports one of the restaurant's mottos: "Save the Planet." Morton donates 100% of his proceeds (25 cents per condom) to a national AIDS research group and reports that at 50 cents a piece, the condoms are "selling like crazy."

The Other Restaurant

The machines are not, however, in the bathroom of Morton's other restaurant, Morton's, the one a few blocks west that draws movie studio presidents and celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor. On that subject, Morton said through a spokesperson, "There's no reason for it. We just don't do it."

Even if the restaurateur doesn't stock condoms for his celebrity clientele, the issue has still resurfaced in the toniest places. Once found only in bathrooms of assorted dives and gas stations, condom vending machines are now in place in some of the top clubs and restaurants as well as on university campuses. And the discussion even extends to the best hotels.

There's a condom machine in the men's bathroom of Nicky Blair's restaurant and bar on Sunset. Blair, however, points out he wanted nothing to do with it.

"One of my partners thought it was a good idea," said Blair, whose establishment caters to a glitzy Hollywood clientele. "I fought him on it; I didn't think it was in good taste. I think guys would be embarrassed to buy them. But, you know, it's the AIDS thing. It's what's happening today."

Blair won't budge on putting one in the women's bathroom. "If my mother went in there, she wouldn't know what it was. . . . I think it's tacky, sleazy and I won't allow it in my restaurant. When Jimmy's has it, when the Beverly Hills Hotel has it, then I'll have it in my ladies' room too."

Jimmy Murphy of Jimmy's doesn't think he'll install condom machines anytime soon in his Beverly Hills restaurant, if at all. "This is the first I've heard of it," he said. "I don't think it would apply to my clientele. If they needed them, I think they'd go to a drugstore or something."

At the Beverly Hills Hotel, condoms are sold in the sundry shop only, and a hotel spokeswoman said there were no plans to make them part of the amenities packages along with complimentary shampoo and shower caps. "It isn't something we're changing our policy on at this time."

Eddie Kerkhofs, co-owner of Le Dome, considered the question of installing such vending machines in his tony Sunset Boulevard restaurant and let out a slight chuckle.

"We've never discussed it," he said. "There's nothing to be embarrassed about, I just think it's going to take one restaurant to be the leader," he said. "It's a matter of time before everyone has them. If one day L'Orangerie and L'Ermitage have it, then we'll do it too."

If Kerkhofs waits for L'Orangerie to install a machine, "he can wait a long time," responded restaurant owner Virginie Ferry. "I know that the wine and food are good inspirations, but they (the customers) can wait until they get home."

At the offices of L'Ermitage Hotels, the subject was discussed months ago.

"After evaluating our clientele," said Carl F. Cusato, senior vice president of marketing for the company that owns Le Bel Age, Le Mondrian, Le Parc, Le Dufy, and L'Ermitage, "we discovered that they are basically upscale business travelers, successful, well-informed people and they are capable of making such personal choices on their own. We thought it was too personal an item for us to deal with."

At the Sundry Shop

At the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, general manager Kurt Stielhack said condoms would "probably be available in our sundry shop once we reopen." (The hotel is being renovated).

Paul Zuest, general manager of the Hotel Bel-Air, said condoms would not be available to his hotel guests. "Our clientele is more seasoned," he said. "Most of them are in their 40s to 60s, traveling as married couples, or honeymoon couples. At this time we've had nobody ask for them."

Michael Roberts of Trumps on Melrose said, "I don't think we ever really thought about it. It's a good question. I can't imagine why (we'd have a condom machine); if people wanted condoms it seems they'd carry them around with them."

The question came up a few months ago at a meeting of the general managers of the Four Seasons Hotels. Charles Ferraro, general manager of the new Beverly Hills Four Seasons, said the hotel does carry them in the gift shops, but draws the line at stocking them in the rooms. "As long as they're available (in the shop), we think that's adequate at this time. I think you take a position when you put them in the rooms. You have religious overtones, right-to-life overtones, it opens up a whole can of worms."

Cafe '50s has condom machines in the bathrooms at both their Sherman Oaks and Venice locations. But, according to Joey Rooney, general manager of the Sherman Oaks restaurant, "What we're doing is '50s nostalgia. We're even using machines from the '50s. We haven't heard one thing about them from our customers. I thought I'd hear from the older clientele, but I haven't."

Condom machines were also installed a couple of weeks ago in bathrooms on the campus of Cal State Northridge after being voted on by the Student Union board several months ago. After an initial media buzz, no one has batted an eye.

The opening of all these new avenues is hailed by condom manufacturers.

From Europe has come Heinz Studer, confident that he'll crack the mainstream American establishments soon. "This" he said, patting the smooth beige finish of the machine installed on the wall of his office, "is the Rolls-Royce of vending machines."

Studer is president of Hygenetics of Beverly Hills, the North American distributor for two German companies that have manufactured both condoms and vending machines for the European market for 30 years. The machines, which Studer said number more than 600,000 in Europe, also dispense perfume, mouthwash and aspirin in addition to condoms. So far, they've been installed in a Venice Beach mini-mall and some restaurants and bars.

Studer decided to tackle the American market after doing market research last fall. One machine is in a Venice Beach mini-mall; others are in local restaurants and bars, which the company refused to identify.

Sales of condoms for vending machine are up 10% at National Sanitary Laboratories Inc., the Lincolnwood, Ill.-based company that manufactures Protex and Lady Protex condoms and vending machines.

Ansell-Americas, the country's largest condom manufacturer that manufactures the LifeStyle brand, has just re-entered the vending machine market after dropping out 10 years ago. Eugene Freed, senior vice president of marketing for the New Jersey-based company, said the vending business originally dropped off when the gasoline shortage forced independent gas stations, where a majority of their condom machines were installed, to close. The market is "just reawakening now," he said.

LifeStyle won't be relegated to gas stations this time around; "The clubs and restaurants--those places are really the tip of the iceberg," says Freed. "Besides those places, machines are going into dorms, student unions, military bases, any place where young people are congregated. I think the potential for growth is in these areas."

Business is booming at Far West Marketing, which sets up vending machine dealerships for National Sanitary Laboratories. William Gallagher, general manager for the Del Mar-based company, says that eight months ago he pegged profits at a gross of $10 per slot per month (a slot is where the product is sold in the machine; a machine may have more than one slot); currently it's $18 per slot per month. Among his dealers in California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, he estimates business is running at 10,000 slots.

But even Gallagher can't convince some people that condoms are acceptable. "We recently made a presentation to a nude club, and the owner said he thought it would be degrading to his customers. He said, 'When Marie Callendar's has them, come back and talk to me.' "

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