Coffee Shop as Office

Once again I recently walked out of a tea/coffee shop without making a purchase because every single table was occupied by individuals with computers using the business as their personal office space.

I just wanCoffee Shop as Officeted to sit for half an hour and enjoy a cuppa and maybe a snack, depending on what the food options were. Since this was a new-to-me-establishment, I had not yet had a chance to check out the menu. I didn’t bother. I won’t go back.

I understand that some people don’t have a convenient place they can work, write, or do homework. I know there are others who find the environment of a busy coffee shop inspiring. I understand that some businesses don’t want to alienate “customers” by setting a time limit on how long they can hog a table.

And, if they mostly rely on takeout customers who grab a cuppa and run off, it may be a viable business plan.

But, how many potential customers like me are driven away each day because the tables are monopolized by those who purchase one beverage and stay for hours upon hours? How much money is the establishment losing to those who allow it to pay their overhead and provide them a free place to work? (And, no, even a $5 cup of coffee is not appropriate “rent” on table space for more than half an hour.)

In reality, these people do have other options: the public library, student facilities, their own damned bedrooms, a corner of the sofa in their living room, their hotel room when they’re traveling. I’ve worked, written, and done homework in them all.

Whatever excuses given for the “need” to work in coffee shops, the reality is those who do so are parasites. The business pays for the electricity that powers their laptop and their phones, the rent on the space they’re occupying, the water they use in the restroom. The establishment purchased the table they pile their books/reference material on, the chair their ass occupies and the one they put their backpack on to prevent anyone else from sitting at “their” table.

All the shop owners get in exchange is the sale of one measly cup of coffee and maybe, if they’re lucky, a sandwich.

Why has this become an acceptable practice?

I will not pretend I have never written words in a coffee shop. (And, I did write a story in which the character did so regularly, but that was fiction.) I occasionally attend write-ins to socialize with other authors and write in tandem for a few hours. But these are rare events and I always try to purchase more than one item. We’re also half a dozen writers occupying six seats not one writer monopolizing two or more. And, when I can, I encourage the scheduling of them at hours when business is slow and no one else would be using the space.

The particular day mentioned at the beginning of this post, the shop was our last stop. We went home and Patrick made me a pot of tea and heated up some coffee for himself. I worked on my computer while enjoying my rooibos, in the space I own, where I pay the bills, at a desk I bought, sitting in a chair I purchased. But, I put fewer dollars out into the community and perhaps missed an opportunity to try a tea I’ve never tasted before. Plus, a business that has been on my I-want-to-check-it-out list lost its spot without an opportunity to win me as a regular customer.

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5 Responses to Coffee Shop as Office

  1. Theresa says:

    I’m curious. I spent about 1 1/2 hours in a brainstorming meeting with a friend in a coffee house late this afternoon. There were folks with computers there, not us, but not a sign or anything about their use.

    How would you control such use, or like to see it controlled? It’s a small place (not a Starbucks), and my friend is a friend of the owner, so I’ll pass the ideas along to her to pass along if it ever becomes a problem. (The owner lives around a city which got clobbered by a tornado Sunday night, so it may be awhile.)

    It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the actual Starbucks store locally, so I have no idea what rules and regulations they have. I usually grab my drinks from the coffee shop at the hospital, or at Target, or places like that.

    Do Starbucks and other coffee houses have computer free zones? I don’t have a laptop currently, but want one, and things like this would be good to find out.

    Thanks
    Theresa

    • Theresa says:

      … and yes, we did buy drinks. Good ones :).

    • A 1- to 2-hour meeting with two or more people, each presumably making at least one purchase, is very different than one person monopolizing a table for hours on end. Coffee shops are great places to meet folks, whether a blind date, an old friend, or a prospective client. I’ve done all three many times.

      At one time, I would have said a good way to prevent parasites would be to eliminate WiFi, or only make it something you can sign onto for an hour or so (I do know stores that do the latter). But so many people are wired into the cell networks that may no longer be a deterrent. (Ditto limiting access to electric outlets, since many batteries now last for 3-5 hours.)

      I’ve heard rumors that some Starbucks are limiting how long folks can stay, but I don’t frequent Starbucks so I haven’t seen this.

      I don’t really have any suggestions. I only see the problem from the customer’s perspective and can’t speak to how the owners’ feel about it. I suppose if I had my own shop, I’d start with polite signs asking people not to occupy a table for more than an hour (perhaps with a tacit understanding they could restart the clock if they made another purchase).

      But, it does become a balancing act. What if you put in a time limit and two old friends who haven’t seen each other for years turn a coffee date into a three-hour catch up session? Do you alienate them by asking them to leave? Or do you alienate your other customers by making an exception.

      Until we change the thinking that using a coffee shop as an office is acceptable, the owners may not feel they are in a position to engineer change.

      • Theresa says:

        True, to all of the above. It isn’t the customer’s responsibility to make decisions for and set store policy. But at the same time, I personally wish you would say or email something to the coffee shop owner – because I can see, partly because of the office mentality, where they may feel that the computer users are pretty much the only users they are going to get. Therefore, that’s who they are catering to. Or maybe that’s what they want, is the computer crowd, and they need a kick in the tailbone that there are others of us out there.

        (I’m stepping on my own toes. Unless I’m ducking in and out, I often grab one of the “easy” chairs and drink while on my phone. I can get easily involved chasing links if I’m not careful.)

        I know I’m being dog-with-bone with this. It’s kind of what my friend and I were brainstorming today, how to influence business owners. A group I’m involved with is having to make a big change, and possibly losing some funding. Fundraising may be a need in the near future, so looking at both sides is a good thing.

        Theresa

  2. I agree the store needs to determine its policy. And there are definitely store that seem to welcome computer users with free WiFi and numerous outlets. But how many of those stores do so because that’s what everyone else does? How many have thought out the cost of all those full tables and empty cups?

    Unfortunately, many folk go into business, especially small businesses, without really understanding what they’re getting into. They don’t define their market and target it; they fear the folks who post a bad review for the wrong reasons.

    But, if you’re looking to “influence business owners,” you’re making the same mistake they are. Which business owners, what type of businesses? What do you want from them? What are you offering?

    Not that I expect (or want) you to answer those questions here. But targeted marketing — defining your niche and cultivating it — is the best way to succeed. You can only way to prosper by trying to be all things to all people if you grow unmanageably huge.

    None of which changes the original question. When did the parasitic practice of using another business’s resources for your office become acceptable?

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