How coffee shop redesigns address laptop loitering and wi fi hogs

When a partial laptop ban at his Halifax cafe led to miffed patrons and headaches for staff, owner Sean Gallagher decided to do something more drastic to enforce his no-screen rule: a restaurant redesign.

Gallagher says he shut down Lion & Bright for a week to put more emphasis on its food and wine service, and less on its ability to meet the needs of laptop-toting freelancers.

Computers are now only allowed at the espresso bar, where remote workers can either stand and type at the taller counter on weekdays, or sit on hard bar stools. They’ll also have to contend with louder music and dimmed lights.

“We literally had to close for a week, change, and renovate to make it so cut-and-dry that (my staff) wouldn’t have to deal with people feeling entitled and giving them a hard time,” says Gallagher, who also trained his staff on how to enforce the new limits.

Green Beanery, cafe, wi fi
At the counter at Toronto’s Green Beanery cafe, where wi fi is no longer offered. Photo via

Across the country, the ongoing battle against wi-fi hogs is pushing some business owners to reimagine their spaces in ways that may end up being less comfortable for some, or at least less conducive to laptop loitering.

Vancouver interior designer Morgan Thomas says comfy arm chairs and cosy alcoves are being eliminated in favour of wide-open spaces and communal tables where private conversation is harder to come by.

These days, she’s detecting client preference for design choices that celebrate the analog pleasures of lively conversation, meeting your neighbours and screen-free distractions.

“It’s more (about) the type of seating and creating more communal tables — large spaces where multiple people can sit, versus one individual club chair by a fireplace which makes people feel like they can kind of have their own little nook,” says Thomas, of the firm Cutler.

“It’s about taking away those nooks and creating more communal, collaborative types of seating and stations.”

Claiming slow table turnovers, surreptitious downloaders, and just a dull, library vibe, some entrepreneurs have been restricting when and where visitors can use their laptop, or are denying wi-fi access altogether.

Free wi-fi and bountiful electrical outlets at the Green Beanery in Toronto lasted just one year, notes Patricia Adams, executive director of the charitable cafe’s parent, Probe International.

It immediately proved popular, keeping the cafe full when it first opened in 2008 in the heart of the Annex, a downtown neighbourhood popular with students, academics, young professionals and tourists.

But it also led to an unexpected consequence — deathly silence in the cafe.

“We had electrical outlets all over the place so people could really fire up their computers and it was just dead. So we ripped them all out,” says Adams. “There was no talking, it was not a good environment.”

In contrast, the current no-wi-fi policy fosters a vibrant community feel that’s more in line with the brand’s environmental ethos and social conscience, she says, also pointing to early ambitions to evoke the “Penny University” spirit of old English coffeehouses.

“You see people engaged in conversation and they’re really concentrating on each other.”

Food service consultant Geoff Wilson doesn’t detect any overall design trend, noting that cafe styles vary and will respond according to their concept. But invariably, an operator will have to weigh the pros and cons of welcoming laptops as an increasingly mobile workforce seeks friendly, affordable spaces.

“The operator is really walking a fine line here,” says Wilson, a principal at fsStrategy Inc.

“The reality is that lifestyles have changed, work styles have changed, there’s a lot more people as I understand it who are self-employed and creating their own income, creating their own businesses, that kind of thing. They need places to meet.”

He notes that many office building landlords and business owners have scaled back meeting spaces to curb costs, while many cafes and restaurants have stepped in to fill the void, promoting their venues as meeting places and community hubs.

He says even big chains have had to figure out a way to meet those needs without compromising their bottom line.

“Look at Tim Hortons stores 15 years ago and McDonald’s stores 15 years ago and look at them today. The environment is more inviting — the seats are not designed for long-term stay, but it is more of a comfortable environment in terms of, ‘Hey, I want to be here, I want to sit here.”’

Gallagher says he considered implementing a minimum spend policy for anyone working on a laptop, a tactic more common in Europe where a cafe might insist users pay an hourly amount they could redeem for food or drink, but decided against it. Instead he decided to restrict laptop use to the espresso bar.

He recalls visitors who would nurse a bottle of water after their coffee order “for hours and hours.” Others were obviously using the unlimited data to download a film or entire TV series.

Gallagher touts these basic etiquette rules: purchase at least a coffee and pastry upon arrival, and buy something else if you stay a second hour. Consider moving on after two hours, especially if seat availability is low.

“You’d look in the window and see people working away and it’s not very inviting for someone who wants to go socialize and have a drink and unwind,” says Gallagher, noting that those customers have returned since the crackdown.

“They need to get away from their phones and they need to get away from their screens to unwind. They need to disconnect so we’re trying to encourage that, be the champions of down time.”