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Why Café Owners Hate You

Drag your laptop to a café and you’ll always be carrying a bit of guilt. It’s great to get away from the home office, and when you’re freelancing by yourself, seeing other people — even if they’re just waiters and other digital nomads — can be a real social boost. At the very least, it gets you out of your pajamas. But you also know that you’re going to be taking up valuable table space with your computer while trying to keep your expenses to minimum. Often, that means ordering a single coffee and using that $2.50 (plus tip) as rent for two to three hours of office space.

Do café owners mind? If they’re supplying the Internet, surely not. But there must be times when they wish the table-hogger would either order more than a cappuccino or get a room. We hit the forums to find out when digital nomads outstay their welcome.

What we found was surprising. Most of the discussions focused not on the space that café workers take up but whether a café should be charging for Internet access. One café owner raised eyebrows (and envy) by describing how his venue focuses on fantastic coffee but installed computers with Internet access at the request of his customers. Charging $7 per hour, those computers generate $6,000 a month and the owner struggles to understand how other venues aren’t doing the same thing.

Competition probably has something to do with it. That café is on a military base. It’s hard to imagine a café that charges $7 per hour for Internet access making much money in Silicon Valley.

So some café owners are looking at your Internet access and wondering whether you shouldn’t be paying for it, but sometimes they’re also wondering whether you shouldn’t just leave. There are a few times that happens.

  1. When You Don’t Eat

Not all cafes put an emphasis on the food they serve. Even though it’s usually the dishes rather than the drinks that bring in the largest profit, running a kitchen also has the biggest expenses. But when a café’s service merges it into a restaurant then your table isn’t worth the price of a brew and a croissant; it represents the cost of a meal, with drinks, times two (because people rarely eat alone.) According to one café owner, it wouldn’t take too many freelancers with laptops taking those tables that to kill his business:

“I do a brisk lunch a dinner business (full menu) on top of my coffee service and roasting so having a single person (why bring friends when you can bring a pc?) take up a table for 3+ hours, regardless if he/she spent for lunch, doesn’t work for me. 7 soloists taking up 7 tables with their laptops would sink me!”

If you’re in a café during the lunchtime rush, and you don’t want to get dirty looks from the owner or end his firm, then you should be either prepared to eat and with a friend or change your work hours.

  1. When You Play with the Electrics

Finding an outlet is one of the toughest aspects of working in a café, most of which were designed before people started to expect more from their local Java bar than a mug of beans. Usually, if you can’t find a place to plug in, you’ll have to make do with battery power — a natural limit on the amount of time you can keep the table.

Sometimes though, the odd digital nomad will go a bit further. We were referred to a post on CoffeeForums published by the owner of a café in Atlantic City. He was pleading for help dealing with a customer who would not only sit a table for four hours with a single cup of coffee (and pick his nose while he was there), but unplug the café’s sign to make sure he had enough electricity to stay around.

“I don’t know what to do,” said the owner. “I want to have some policy in place before this balloons into a bigger problem. My husband says to hang a sign that reads the wi-fi is free, but the electric is not.”

The café’s solution was to put up a notice saying that the electricity wasn’t free and to run the sign’s cord down the wall so that it comes out immediately above the socket. Even that wasn’t enough to deter this customer though. He unplugged the sign again and used an adaptor to siphon off more electricity before being told in no uncertain terms to leave the outlet alone.

Few digital nomads are that inconsiderate and most ask before they unplug anything in a café. But the post did raise a number of interesting issues. The forum’s administrator noted that big laptops drain lots of power. A Dell XPS, the administrator calculates, uses 150 watts an hour.

“At 450 watts a day, 5 days a week that 1 person racks up 2250 watts/week. The US average kilowatts/hour is around $0.10.”

Sit in a café with your Dell XPS for three hours a day, every day, and you’re adding about a quarter a week to the café’s expenses. That’s something to consider next time the price of your coffee goes up.

Among the responses to that post though, there were also plenty of posts worried about liability if the customer electrocuted himself while plugging in his laptop.

While it’s easy to understand café owners’ concerns, it’s a harder to imagine a freelancer suing the café unless the socket was obviously dangerous. But what about if a power surge fried your computer’s insides or the waitress spilled coffee all over your keyboard? The issue of responsibility when you take a thousand-dollar machine loaded with even more valuable contents into someone else’s property isn’t so simple.

  1. When You Abuse the Wifi

Even when café owners don’t mind you sitting at a table, even when they like the idea of some tables being occupied in quiet times, generating regular revenue, bringing occasional friends and attracting customers, they will mind you abusing their free Internet.

One café owner on CoffeeForums revealed that he checks his network systematically to track usage. Sometimes, he’ll find few people in the café but the bandwidth completely utilized. One of those customers will be using his wifi not for working but for file-sharing.

“I simply banned that person’s mac address,” the café owner said. “I will in a month or so delete it but until then they can go somewhere else.”

Incredibly, that café owner said he gets two or three people like that a month.

Most freelancers, like most café owners, are pretty considerate. We understand that we bring some business to a café but that we also squeeze as much space and time out of that purchase as we can. Try to avoid peak hours, don’t play with the infrastructure without authorization and keep your torrents for when you’re home, and you shouldn’t give any proprietor a reason to dislike you.

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