You know the ones. For the price of a small coffee they’ll monopolize a café table for hours on end. They put their phones in chargers, connect to the free WiFi, and settle in for the workday. Why not? The bathrooms are clean and somebody left behind today’s newspaper with an empty crossword puzzle. They can nurse the cool dregs of that same cup of coffee for the better part of the day.
The squatters monopolize precious seating space, commandeer electrical outlets, and remain at the table for cell phone calls, and the coffee shops—chain and independents alike—are fed up. Some urban coffee shop operators have resorted to covering electrical outlets with padlocked plugs to limit your session to the duration of your battery life. Others have shrunk the size of café tables to tiny cups-only pedestals, or have removed tables entirely, replacing them with European-style stand up coffee bars.
The draconian strategies have outraged some long-time customers, and once you leave the high-traffic high-rent cities, these tactics simply don’t cut it. Suburban coffee drinkers are not there to escape a cramped city apartment. A welcoming atmosphere is the stock in trade for a local café.
Coffee shops are now looking to strike a gentler balance. In the Chicago area, Panera bakery-cafés request that WiFi usage be limited to 30 minutes during the lunch rush, while nearby Cafe Jumping Bean forgoes the self-policing and just powers down the wireless router at lunchtime. Others like San Francisco’s Café Abir hope to bypass freeloaders by only handing out the WiFi access password with purchases, and changing it every few hours to discourage lingering. Everyone in the business is waiting on Sony which is currently developing an electrical outlet that can read a user’s identity and set time limits on electricity use.
What’s fair and reasonable? Here’s a look at some different perspectives and opinions:
According to a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair, poll 32% of Americans think that a person who has purchased coffee should be able to use the shop’s free WiFi for as long as they want. 38% think that 30 to 60 minutes after they finish their drink is reasonable. Only 18% think you should use it only for as long as you’re drinking.