Café Loustic | “Thank you for using our WiFi”
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“Thank you for using our WiFi”

22 Sep “Thank you for using our WiFi”

How do we define the purpose of the espresso bar/café in these connected times? Is it up to the café owners or the clients? Either or both? These is debate we wish to launch here.

 

One of the questions that a lot of my fellow specialty coffee and restaurant industry owners are now asking themselves and each other is this: have we become glorified co-working spaces just to use the internet and/or computers, and if we don’t agree, are we bold enough to say No?

 

For many small business owners, people staying for long periods of time in cafés or restaurants with computers, during very busy periods, poses a problem that needs to be addressed. I have spoken at length with many different industry people on this topic, and what strikes me is how it has become a real headache for many of us to manage. Especially in Paris, where our shop space is at a premium.

 

An extreme example we have had over the past year is of instances of students coming in, joining their friends (who have ordered something), opening their laptops and working – without ordering anything. Some have even pulled out a coke and opened it. When interrogated about whether they would like to order anything, one or two have actually said « No ».

 

Spot the error.

 

Once I point out the bleeding obvious that consummation is mandatory to stay in the café and that, as a small business we cannot allow people to bring in their own food and drink, off goes the hissy fit and out storms the « client ». Result – a one star review on Yelp (although the commentary carefully omits the role of the commentator, of course).

 

It has often struck me over the course of these last three years how the behavioural patterns of people being denied internet or computer use closely resemble that of junkies being restricted their supply of drugs. Some people’s desperate search for WiFi coverage is like the junkie’s search for a hit. Of course, it is entirely reasonable for tourists to want WiFi and to go to cafés to be able to research information on places to visit, shopping and museum hours, transport and other things. I do this myself once I’m overseas and it’s normal – and it’s most often done on a smartphone, and generally people do not spend hours doing it. But that’s not who I’m referring to.

 

It’s sometimes a depressing sight from behind the bar to see a sea of lit up ‘Apple’ logos dispersed around the café, with two-dozen pairs of zombie eyes being hypnotised by backlit screens. Some of our (French) neighbours, not used to seeing this phenomenon, have been a little shocked by this (you rarely see a Parisian bistro littered with computer users).  It’s even worse when there is a group of people who come in together, order, ask for the WiFi password, and instead of talking to one another, spend the whole time looking at their phones. Like robots.

 

The point of this rant however is not social engineering. The problem is how it impacts the financial bottom line of very small businesses struggling to make a living, and how to solve the dilemma between being grateful for people’s custom and the moral question of the ‘customer’s responsibility’. Where is the line drawn? Depends on the owner of course. Personally, customers spending six hours on a computer in an empty café having spent 2,50€ on an espresso is fine. The same customer in a busy café denying people a table is not. But then a customer spending a few hours in a busy café on a laptop having constantly ordered is fine too. For me, the decision on whether to police laptops and WiFi is a blend of common sense and yes, how much the customer spends. Although as people have a myriad of different reasons for coming into the café, we have had to impose rules at different times of the year in an effort to reconcile customer needs with business needs, with a common sense approach.

 

Here is what we do at Loustic:

 

The café is busier in winter than in summer, and busiest on weekends in winter. People who work during the week are only available to come and see us during the weekend. Because of this, in the winter, laptops can only be used during the week.This allows us to turnover the tables and keep more people happy.

Laptops are allowed Monday to Friday in winter as space permits, however we sometimes have to move people to share tables etc. In summer – no problem – we are quieter so we do not impose rules.

 

Review sites such as Yelp and Trip Advisor are becoming graveyards of the customer experience in so far as the only people posting after an initial rush of enthusiasm are those moaning about – you guessed it – internet/computer access or part thereof.

 

I believe the rise of co-working spaces will eventually help espresso bars deal with this problem of extensive laptop use during busy periods. But the question will always remain as to the purpose of the café and how the limits will be  defined by both owners and clients. I like the metaphor of pouring water into a glass full of pebbles – the water will flow around the contours of the pebbles. But who is the ‘pebble’ and who is the ‘water’? Depends on who the ‘pebble’ is!

 

Edited by Isabelle Eyman at www.sobremesa.work

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