A Cafe sans Screens and Wifi

A coffee shop. A nice place to work, right? Or socializing?

In October, Preservation in Pink discussed the Coffee Shop Conundrum: coffee shop atmosphere and aesthetics, the cost of a cup of coffee, how much to spend in a small business, and how long to stay. Do you have coffee shop guilt? How can a coffee shop be the best atmosphere, the most inviting, and still make a profit?

You might have seen the recent NPR story on August First, a coffee shop/cafe in Burlington, Vermont that has banned screens (laptops and tablets) as of March 31, 2014. Why? Customers were squatting, staying too long and the business was losing money. Buying a few cups of coffee for a few hours was just not cutting it for profits. Additionally, when all of the tables are always full with people and laptops, it does not create the community feel that August First wanted. Rather than being social and neighborly, people were setting up shop with more space than needed and not leaving. The tables were not turning over. So August First made a bold move. Two years ago they cut the free wifi, and this year they banned screens (smartphones are allowed). The result? Sales have increased, even with people’s complaining.

August First in Burlington, VT.

August First in Burlington, VT.

While banning screens sounds crazy, you can probably understand August First’s point-of-view. Haven’t you ever walked into a cafe where the tables were all full, some with one person taking up a table for four? That isn’t fair to anyone.

If you read the comments on the NPR articles (hundreds) you’ll see that there are many issues at hand:

  1. Customers squatting at tables cuts down in revenues because tables do not turn over;
  2. Tables that do not turn over will discourage people from returning because they expect to not be able to find a table;
  3. What sort of atmosphere are the business trying to create?;
  4. Cafes are not meant to be alternate offices for freelancers (although I’m sure we’ve all wished about that!);
  5. Is there more of an issue for small business owners than chains such as Starbucks or Barnes & Noble?

The first two are easy to comprehend. Customers spending a few hours and drinking two cups of coffee, for example, will not create as much business as a group of people drinking a cup of coffee or eating a meal. Customers taking up more than one chair and space for one person, prevent more customers from choosing to drink/dine in this cafe.

Yet, some businesses might want the creative writing/academic/business crowd to settle in for a while and appreciate the space. Some people crave working in environments where you are allowed to drink coffee (as in, not the library) and hear the hum of everyday life around you while you work. As discussed in Coffee Shop Conundrum, Starbucks is not an environment where you’d want to say a while (in my opinion). A local, cozy, friendly coffee shop is. At that point, the issue becomes about respect and etiquette, issues often overlooked when screens are in front of our faces. Do not use the coffee shop as your office and spend enough money when you are there. However, what is the appropriate amount of money?

The issue of coffee shop space diverges into credit card v. cash purchases and the evolving nature of how we communicate, interact, and work.

Are there solutions? Well, for those who do not understand that a coffee shop is not an office, they should consider collaborative/co-working office space: renting a desk in an office with other freelancers. If you find the right space, you’ll find your ideal coffee shop/work atmosphere. Even the small city of Montpelier, Vermont has such a space – Local 64. Look around in your city.

What about a different approach? How about a pay-as-you-go space? A cafe in the U.K. and one in Buenos Aires serve as the examples. You pay for the amount of time that you’re in the cafe, not for anything else. It hearkens back to the days of the internet cafe, when you were paying for internet. It’s another version of the co-working space.

And then there are variations. Some coffee shops give you a code when you place an order. Once you run out of internet time, you have to buy something else to get additional time. Other places request that you limit your time and table space during busy hours. Perhaps creating a screen section would work.

Of course, each business can do what is best for its business and create the environment it would like. As we become more mobile and screen-attached, small businesses will have to be creative and find solutions to keep up their profits. Good job to August First for being braving and finding what works for them. Not to mention, the food is delicious, and August First is located in a historic building.

What do you think? Are there other issues? Does your favorite coffee shop have wifi? Any other solutions? What’s the balance?

Coffee Shop Conundrum

Coffee shop culture has changed with the advent of computers, wifi, smart phones, and all other devices that we all use everyday. Conversations and meetings still occur, but many people are there for the sake of productivity. With others working diligently (or at least appearing to do so), the background hum of other customers, and a good, hot beverage and snack, a coffee shop provides a comfortable atmosphere and alternative work space.

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The Traveled Cup in St. Albans, VT.

Wherever I’m traveling or whenever I have a considerable amount of writing/studying to accomplish, I prefer to spend time in a welcoming coffee shop. What is welcoming to me: comfortable chairs, various seating options, historic buildings, a nice ceiling, background music, good coffee, a few snack options, good lighting, some warmth to the space (rug or wood floors, not linoleum or stick tiles, for examples). Most often, a historic building that maintains its historic integrity fits all of these coffee shop requirements.

Sitting in a coffee shop on Saturday afternoon, I found it surprisingly empty of customers, except for a few people, all working or studying. Having the table space is much appreciated as well as a choice seat, all while sipping a bottomless cup of coffee and enjoying an oatmeal raisin cookie, but I found myself wondering how these little shops stay in business. There didn’t seem to be enough business over the course of a few hours to even fund the employees working. This particular coffee shop is probably much busier during the work week, and maybe I ended up in one of those weird customer lulls.

Coffe House & Block Gallery in Winooski, VT.

Coffee House & Block Gallery in Winooski, VT.

The cost for a cup of regular coffee varies; I’ve seen $1.25 to $2.50, but it generally falls at about $2.00. In some ways, $2.00 for a cup of coffee seems like a lot of money; after all, even buying a $12/lb bag of coffee, I can get so many more cups for $2.00. However, that amount of money would not support the overhead costs of a business (building, utilities, employees, insurance, supplies, food, etc.) It makes sense that the cup of coffee costs more – aside from the fact that someone made it for you – because it is paying for the atmosphere. If we weren’t seeking a coffee shop environment, we’d all swing by the nearest gas station and be on our way.

Still, say you pay $2.00 for a cup of coffee (maybe $2.50 for a bottomless cup or $.99 for a refill), and then proceed to spend hours in one coffee shop, how much should it really cost? It’s a tricky situation. Coffee shops provide wifi and other amenities to encourage customers, but people can routinely stay too long. If space is in demand, this is noticed.

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Speeder & Earl’s in Burlington, VT

Coffee lovers, what do you do? Do you make sure to buy food or many cups of coffee? Perhaps a more expensive coffee drink? Do you ever feel like you shouldn’t be monopolizing your table for so long? I do my best to only take a small table, to order more than one item (spaced out over the time I’m there), and to return frequently. I want to support these businesses and the local economy. If there were no local coffee shops, we’d all be subjected to the chain retailers. (Alert! Preservation confession ahead.) And while I do enjoy Starbucks coffee, I do not enjoy spending time in Starbucks. They are cold in temperature, have a tin sound, and are generally not comfortable. It must be by design. Who else thinks so? In order to keep our local coffee shops in business, I’m going to drink more coffee, and remember that when a price seems high, I don’t mind paying it because I like where I am. How do you feel?