Filtering out coffee customers

Sez the Wall Street Journal headline, No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users — They Sit for Hours and Don’t Spend Much; Getting the Bum’s Rush in the Big Apple.

Erica Alini, writes, “…in a growing number of small coffee shops, firm restrictions on laptop use have been imposed and electric outlets have been locked. The laptop backlash may predate the recession, but the recession clearly has accelerated it.” She tells stories about shops kicking customers out, among other things.

But is there really a “laptop backlash?” I’m reminded of Billy Crystal’s stories about his grandfather. Billy never knew what his grandfather sold. All he heard the old man say was, “Ve’re closed!” Telling customers to go away is an old New Yawk tradition. Is it so different at coffee shops?

I dunno. I travel a lot, use laptops in coffee shops a lot, and have never been told to leave, or even felt a hint that I’m abusing a shop’s hospitality.

Hey, if this is true, there might be a market in New York for coffee shops with plenty of wi-fi and outlets, along with space for more customers to park their tushes and get work done. Woudn’t ya think?


  1. Joseph Zitt’s avatar

    Ya might… but what’s the business model for a room full of people who have bought one cup of coffee and are sitting for hours using free wi-fi? A challenge, considering NYC rents. But it’s a good use of libraries (for those that can afford to remain open). My local library (Cleveland Heignts-University Heights)is quite laptop friendly, though so are the surrounding coffee shops.

  2. Don Marti’s avatar

    What you need is a couple of hidden buttons under the counter, connected to the router/firewall/DHCP server. Press the green button to let one more person connect, as when somebody buys a coffee and there are plenty of tables free. Press the red button to throw off the longest-sitting user and not allow any new connections until you press the green button–start doing this before lunch rush or when the place fills up.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Joseph, what’s the business model of a café in Paris? It’s a crowded city and people sometime sit for hours and talk. A business exists within a culture, which transcends store policies. The best stores will think of creative ways to attract and keep customers. Wi-fi was and remains a good way to do that. There are other ways too. It’s a changing business.

  4. Don Marti’s avatar

    The business model that today subsidizes laptop users in the USA is to-go coffee, which goes for the same price as coffee for here, but doesn’t tie up the tables and chairs. If you have a thriving to-go business you don’t need to worry as much about turning tables. So if you use a coffee place as your workplace, be sure to get your coffee to go there too.

    In France, is the sales tax (VAT) much higher, and the property tax much lower than here? A different tax situation might make it workable to do less in sales for a given store size.

    A library is a suboptimal way to deliver wireless access, because every IT product sold to libraries is substandard and overpriced. The institutional buying process is so dysfunctional that the only companies that can make it through have no money left for improving the product.

  5. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    “A business exists within a culture, …”

    Yes, you’re absolutely right. In France, they have ideas like 35-hour work weeks, extensive public benefits, lots of outright protectionism, all enforced by a willingness of large amounts of society to go on strike when those are threatened.

    None of which have anything to do with the business model of attention, attention, ATTENTION, and then somehow profit 🙁

  6. Kyle’s avatar

    I have seen one guy kicked out of a coffeehouse, but it was because he sat down and logged on and didn’t buy anything. Then he got arrogant when confronted by the shop owner. A jerk, you know? But here in Carpinteria, near Santa Barbara, there’s w-fi but the number of tables is shrinking. You can have your Net if you can hold your java in one hand, your laptop in the other, and type with your nose.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Exactly, Seth. Which is why the best coffee shops in the U.S. are roughly on the French model. That is, they are understood by themselves and their customers to be part of both culture and community, that they depend on each other in more than just financial ways, and that if somebody is being a jerk there’s more of a chance that other customers will set the jerk straight than that a manager will have to come out of an office in the back. They certainly don’t need to post policies that are hostile to customers.

    The real problem is that too many coffee shops still haven’t figured out how to be the best at what they are. Hell, all they have to do is a better job than than Starbucks at the basics, in a more hospitable and less cookie-cuttered space. Shouldn’t be that hard.

    But, on the whole, I’ve found that the coffee from Starbucks is generally better than what you find at most home-grown houses. This is not Starbucks’ fault, because making a great espresso or cappuccino isn’t kitchen science, much less the rocket variety.

    Bonus link.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar


    Sorry to hear about that. Just checked and saw that the Coffee Grinder on Linden is gone. Gotta say I barely remember it. The rest of town is all Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, both chains. Well, there’s still Peets in SB. The locals — Coffee Cat, Arts & Letters, Daily Grind, Pierre Lafond, Santa Barbara Roasting Company, Muddy Waters — are all sub-Starbucks, at least as far as the coffee itself goes, even if they are highly convivial places. Some of the bakeries — Jeannine’s in Montecito and on Upper State, D’Angelo’s on Guittierez — are much better. Jeannine’s serves Peets (or at least used to). D’Angelo’s used to have a true artist making cappuccinos there.

    When we’re in town, dare I say, the best place is our house. The machine is one of these with a first-rate grinder to match. We grind fresh Peet’s (or whatever other Good Beans we can get) and steam fresh (mostly whole) milk. We make every cup with skill (doesn’t take much) and care, and clean it after every use. You don’t get that at any coffee house I know, other than Intelligentsia, which my wife sampled at their new place in Venice (CA), and pronounced outstanding. Since you’re not too far away, check it out the next time you have to head down to LAX or something.

  9. Ehud’s avatar

    Are they also going to check how long it takes me to read my newspaper? Perhaps enact a policy against slow readers?
    This story is amusing because it has nothing to do with business models (reading, chatting, eating slowly and writing in long hand are all as problematic as laptops) and all to do with some people who are afraid of change.

  10. Patrick’s avatar

    Complexity in this analysis begs reduction. Coffee addiction crossed with access anxiety and business imperative accounting. Is this another adult onset of ADHD?
    Review suggests that NY attitude is underestimated. Carp scale means one less store is a lot less access for free connected tables where you can also feed the chemical addiction.
    Maybe the solution is to have libraries sell coffee either through vendor agreements or outright. The Santa Monica Library has a patio with a food vendor. Food stays outside, but you get wifi and caffeine in the same chair. If I was an addicted journo, I’d be there doing research on this solution….

  11. Ben’s avatar

    I bet the reaction to laptop infestation is starkly different in chain coffee shops vs smaller ones. I’m like you, I’m often in coffee shops and never feel the evil eye from behind the counter. But that’s probably just because I’m usually in one of the larger operations. I’ve never heard of anyone getting kicked out but I bet it’s going to start happening more and more.

  12. molly’s avatar

    The Fantastically Wonderful COFFEE SONG!

  13. Brett Glass’s avatar

    About 15 years ago, I wrote software for a hotspot system which kicked users off after a few hours (so that they’d have to get another password from the owner of the establishment). At the time, the owner of one local coffeehouse didn’t buy in; he didn’t see any reason to ensure that the customers kept coming back to the counter. But now that many of them sit all day, I wonder if he would reconsider.

  14. justcorbly’s avatar

    Culture doesn’t pay the bills. I walked into a Starbucks yesterday, sans laptop, looking for coffee and a place to rest my feet. The place was full. Every “comfy” chair was taken by someone using a laptop… with no coffee cup or other evidence that they’d purchased something in sight. So I walked out. One of those moochers might eventually have bought something, but they cost the shop a sure sale.

    We wouldn’t expect a store to happily endure non-buyers who came in just to enjoy the air conditioning for a few hours. How is wifi different?

  15. Denise’s avatar

    Maybe we could integrate a European custom into our coffee shops and restaurants … they don’t expect the tables to turn … in fact it is just fine if you close the place up with only a single cup of coffee!


  16. Lauren’s avatar

    The local Starbucks in my neighborhood just began free WiFi in their stores which I am pretty excited about. While I love being able to work while drinking a cup of coffee I have noticed the coffee shops fill up quickly and stay packed. If I don’t arrive early I won’t get a seat, which, as much as I again love the free WiFi idea, I still would like to be able to enjoy my coffee in the shop while sitting!
    Starbucks had to know that this would happen. I mean where else do you need to be if you have coffee and the internet??

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Starbucks began to put time limits on their WiFi customers.

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