Portland brewery owners: Free menstrual products a ‘no-brainer’

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Movies screened on airplanes are meant to be distractions, often forgotten as soon as the plane lands.

But for Will Fisher, co-owner of Austin Street Brewery in Portland, a film he once watched in the air inspired him to change one of his core business practices

The 2018 film, “Pad Man,” tells the true story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, an Indian man who invented a machine that creates low-cost, high-quality sanitary napkins after realizing how inaccessible the products were for many women in his home country.

An Aunt Flow brand dispenser offering free tampons and pads hangs on the wall at Austin Street Brewery in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Fisher decided to research dispensers that would allow him to offer free pads and tampons to customers and employees at Austin Street. In May, he installed machines that do exactly that.

The dispensers are manufactured by Aunt Flow, a company started in 2016 by then 20-year-old Claire Coder. She was inspired to start her business, according to Glamour magazine, after she unexpectedly bled in public and had no menstrual supplies. Aunt Flow offers businesses several ways to distribute free menstrual products; both Austin Street locations have touch-free pad and tampon dispensers mounted on bathroom walls.

Fisher called the decision a “no-brainer.” In terms of the taboo that still exists around talking about menstruation, he said he thinks the products should be categorized like paper towels, clean water, and hand soap for public bathrooms – they should be free everywhere.

Old-fashioned, coin-operated tampon dispensers that many public restrooms used to offer decades ago have largely disappeared. According to Retrofit Magazine, their disappearance can be partially attributed to people breaking into them frequently to steal the money inside, as well as their tendency to break down. And in the age of digital payments, few people carry coins to operate dispensers.

Fisher said he anticipates other business owners might not want to offer free menstrual products because of their perceived cost, but he said the expense isn’t “too bad.”

Austin Street Brewery on Fox Street in Portland.

Then there’s the issue of the “pink tax” – products marketed to women that are more expensive than products for men. Huffington Post estimated in 2017 that an average woman’s menstrual period costs her more than $18,000 over the course of a lifetime, including associated costs like birth control and pain medication.

Fisher last week said he spent $2,000-$3,000 on the Aunt Flow machines, including smaller dispensers for employee bathrooms, and each tampon or pad costs him about 27 cents.

He said he doesn’t expect people to take more products than they need, and the cost attributed to occasional hoarders will be exceeded by the goodwill Austin Street generates from out-of-town customers visiting friends, for example, who may not be able to go get a pad or tampon easily without going back to a hotel.

To use an analogy, he said, “If I had allergies I’d grab a few extra tissues so that I’m not embarrassed by blowing my nose all the time.”

Belleflower Brewing on Cove Street in Portland.

In an Instagram post on July 26, Fisher said the free products should be “expected, not exceptional.” He later suggested consumers should pressure establishments they frequent to provide free menstrual products.

Down the road from Austin Street, Belleflower Brewing Co. also recently partnered with Aunt Flow to offer free tampons and pads. 

Katie Bonadies, co-owner of Belleflower, said on Aug. 6 that free menstrual products are seen as a luxury when they should be a necessity. The Aunt Flow dispensers are especially useful in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, she added, because they are touch-free.

Nick Bonadies, one of the brewery’s other owners, said the response from customers has been positive since the machines were installed about three weeks ago. “A woman came up to the bar and said ‘thank you so much for your bathrooms, I can’t tell you how much that means,’” he said.

At Austin Street, Fisher said the business is all about “full inclusivity.”

“Anything that might limit somebody or make someone uncomfortable or stop them from being able to be there and be themselves is the first thing on our mind,” he said.