We Need Coffee Shops That Cater to Laptop Users

laptopwaitressIt’s always dangerous to assume that anything presented in a newspaper article as a social trend is, in fact, a social trend. But I’m still a bit stressed over a Wall Street Journal story that says that there’s a growing backlash among coffee-shop proprietors over laptop users doing their computing on the premises.

A few years ago, notebook-toting workers and students were seen as an attractive clientele, which is why both national chains and neighborhood joints set up Wi-fi hotspots and installed extra power outlets near seating.  Now–at least in some restaurants in New York, according to the Journal–they’re seen as freeloaders who hog tables during busy times without buying enough to eat and drink. Laptop bans are going into effect, and some places are going so far as to padlock power outlets. (One chain with a zero-tolerance policy for computer users is, appropriately, called Café Grumpy.)

I take this all personally. Technologizer doesn’t have an office–not even in my home. I do my work wherever I have my laptop, an Internet connection, and my phone. Which, at various times, is in coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and public parks; on the subway; and in my car (not while driving). In fact, I’m writing this from the comfy corner booth of the Westlake Coffee Shop, near my house.

I try to be a good citizen. When I’m working from a coffee shop, I buy food and beverage–although I confess I’ve been known to nurse one Starbucks chai for hours, or even leave the empty cup sitting on my table in hopes that people would think I’d recently purchased it. I’m sensitive to busy times, and try to take off if a line’s forming for seating.

But I don’t want to hang out where I’m not wanted, and if a restaurant institutes a ban on laptop use–even if it’s only during certain hours–my instinct is to not do business with it, period. It’s not computer use itself that’s the problem. So why not just institute a minimum bill amount and/or a limit on the duration of visits if it’s absolutely necessary? Or charge enough for Wi-Fi that the joint makes a profit even if someone doesn’t consume any coffee?

Better yet, why not look at laptop users as an opportunity rather a threat? Maybe there’s a market for a sort of hybrid of Starbucks and Kinkos, with power at every seat, services like faxing and photocopying, and recharging stations for your BlackBerry or iPhone. And a promise that you’ll never, but never, be harassed for pulling out your computer and getting some work done.


13 comments

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  1. tom b August 6, 2009 at 12:51 pm #

    I was in a coffee shop with some friends in Chicago a few months ago. looking around, of about 11 tables, we were the only table that had people interacting with other (meat space) people. There were couples, each with a laptop, not talking. Not a judgment really, just an observation.

  2. loconavi August 6, 2009 at 1:18 pm #

    They exist and are called computer cafes.

  3. John Baxter August 6, 2009 at 1:53 pm #

    It is interesting that the author (Glenn Fleishman) of a similar story 4 years ago in New York Times mentioned that story this morning in saying this isn’t some new thing.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/13/technology/13wifi.html?_r=1

  4. DaveZatz August 6, 2009 at 4:40 pm #

    I don’t know… Panera is overrun with people siphoning off free Internet. I stopped going for food (and computing). I’d rather cafes charge a nominal rate. And in fact, I shy away from public hotspots because I don’t want to share my WordPress password and carry my aircard with me (now a MiFi, $50/mo). I spend maybe 2 hours in the Starbucks a day (before work, during lunch) – that’s most of my blogging time. (I also get 2 free hours of WiFi there a day, if I want, because I’ve got a debit card.)

  5. derbbre August 7, 2009 at 10:08 am #

    Loitering customers (laptop or not) are nothing new. Why do so many bars have cover charges or drink minimums? Don’t discriminate against the customer because of her activity, just require a purchase. Maybe one cup of joe per hour? Maybe more? Of course, it’s up to the café owner to choose.

  6. Matt August 7, 2009 at 1:32 pm #

    I used to own a coffee shop and only once do I ever remember cutting off someones internet. I couple used to come in every day, and every day they’d sit with their laptops using the internet. Never ever never did they buy anything. So after about a week of that I cut off their access via MAC address.

    Other than that I never cut off anyone’s access as long as they bought something.

  7. AJ August 7, 2009 at 9:10 pm #

    @Matt,

    If I were in your position I would’ve done the same thing.

  8. memory foam August 8, 2009 at 9:44 pm #

    As mentioned above all the cafes need to do is have a minimum purchase requirement and/or WiFI charge. Laptop users then I think will be a desirable clientele … they will give frequent business and they are quiet, which most coffee shops probably appreciate. I think this issue will die down as the solutions are pretty clear and laptop users can be a great source of business for them under the right circumstances.

  9. weeklyroast August 9, 2009 at 9:18 am #

    @derbbe You’re right. The simple fix would be for the coffee shop owner to have an Internet access password print on customer receipts, good for an hour or two worth of Internet usage. When the allotted time is up, the customer can make another purchase to continue.

  10. Susan August 12, 2009 at 7:47 pm #

    Why not go to the local public library? Many have cafes where you can purchase a beverage and sit nearly anywhere you want and have WIFI connection. And some even have laptops you can check out at the front desk and use anywhere in the building. Where I used to work we allowed library customers to use one of the circulating laptops for two hours for free. Good deal!

  11. mengembalikan jati diri bangsa August 14, 2009 at 9:51 am #

    give extra comfort for security i thinks…
    really awesome.

  12. mitz September 20, 2009 at 1:13 pm #

    kinkos should be a place where people could work and not get kicked out for loitering

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