Screen-Free Cafés—A Passing Trend Or More To Come?
Imagine walking into a café where people are eating, talking to one another, and reading the newspaper. Customers eat and leave. That’s a normal scene, but then you notice that nobody is staring at a smartphone. You can actually hear more than the relentless clicking of keyboards.
That’s what’s happening at the August First Bakery & Café in Burlington, Vermont. As of March 31, the owner, Jodi Whalen, put an end to iPads, laptops, and similar devices. When she opened the business four years ago, she offered free Wi-Fi to customers. The problem is the people would come and stay. And stay. And stay. Sometimes holding a table for as long as six hours.
“We saw a lot of customers come in, look for a table, not be able to find one and leave,” Whalen says. “It was money flowing out the door for us.”
Whalen studied the number of lost customers due to lack of seating and estimates the business lost about $15,000 in potential profits last year as would-be diners walked out the door when they couldn’t find a table.
Though some customers are disappointed with the ban on screens, Whalen says it has helped boost business and a sense of community. After all, August First is a bakery and café, not an office.
I completely understand Whalen’s decision to go screen-free. She’s running a business. She has bills and employees to pay and that is made much harder if one person hogs a table that seats four people for hours on end. She did the math and saw that offering free Wi-Fi—which isn’t free for the business, I assume—was encouraging too many customers to cut into her profits. Since she’s running a cafe, she doesn’t have as many tables as a sit-down restaurant.
“What if the customer buys something every few hours?” you ask. Nice idea, but still not a good solution for the business owner. If a customer arrives for breakfast, has a snack about mid-morning and stays through lunch, he really hasn’t spent that much money. Maybe $35—and that’s probably a generous estimate. Now imagine if that same table was freed up every 30-45 minutes by people who eat and leave. We don’t need to do the math to understand that the second scenario is desirable.
Free Wi-Fi is a convenience. Restaurant and café owners offer it to encourage people to patronize their businesses, not take up space so that other paying customers can’t patronize it. Too many people have taken advantage and turned restaurants into their own personal workspaces. In my opinion, the pendulum is swinging in the right direction if more businesses—especially small businesses—go screen-free.
What do you think, GEM Nation? What’s socially acceptable when it comes to screen time in restaurants? What would you do if your favorite restaurant or cafe stopped allowing the use of laptops and iPads? Sound off below.