Receiver Coffee in Charlottetown has taken a bold step, asking customers working or studying on laptops to be more mindful of the time and space they are using at the popular café, especially during peak hours.
In a post on social media, Receiver said it has had a lot of complaints from customers about "tables being occupied for very long time periods by those on laptops," and asked customers "to limit table usage to a reasonable timeframe."
"We were having issues with people spending a lot of time on their laptops in the cafés," said Chris Francis, one of three co-owners of Receiver, which has four locations in Charlottetown. The problem has been compounded by seating being at about half capacity due to COVID-19 distancing restrictions.
"A lot of people may come and spend hours and hours and hours on end," Francis said. He calls these people "computer campers."
While about half of the café's computer users are mindful and will make purchases throughout their stay, others stay all day and buy only a cup of coffee, and some get angry if asked to move to a smaller table, Francis said.
"We would never kick anyone out," he said. Staff helps them find another seat and often tops up their coffee for the inconvenience.
Francis said while he is sympathetic to those who are lonely or bored working from home or taking classes online, it "became very challenging for us to shoulder that burden."
So far, reaction to their post on Facebook has been positive, with people supporting the move.
'Working for free'
UPEI biology student Duncan Murray, studying at Receiver, said he enjoys grabbing a coffee and using his laptop at coffee shops around Charlottetown. He hadn't seen the post from Receiver online, but said "it makes sense" and said he will now try to avoid hanging around if the shop becomes busy.
Murray said he enjoys the atmosphere at coffee shops, because UPEI's library feels too quiet and deserted.
Around the corner and down Queen Street, The Kettle Black coffee shop has the same problem.
"People are staying for a long time working or studying in the coffee shop and unfortunately not every time buying or purchasing from us," said Tatiana Zharkikh, who manages the café her husband owns.
"Physically, they are taking tables which could be used for several customers," she said. "So basically, we are working for free, in a way."
Sometimes people will even bring their own food to eat, she said — she has posted one small sign asking people not to do that.
The couple emigrated a few years ago from Russia, where they owned a small chain of coffee shops. There, she said they gave customers a code on their receipt for free Wi-Fi for two hours. After that, customers had to make another purchase to get a new code.
Zharkikh said they are considering doing something similar on P.E.I., or putting up signs asking people to limit their time in the shop, but fear it may drive away customers. She calls the post by Receiver "very brave."
"We are afraid if we say those things, they will say 'OK then I will stay home' or go different place," she said. "Small purchases is better than nothing for us."
We aren't an office, we're not like a collective work space or anything like that, we're a business. — Chris Francis
Marilyn Sheen said she has also been struggling. She's taking biology remotely at the University of Guelph and said when she studies at home her productivity drops.
She said she often stays eight hours at the café, buying breakfast and lunch, spending $25 to $30.
"I've tried to go to the library, but I really like being in public spaces to study," Sheen said. "I'll certainly think about that more."
Is a café considered a public space?
"Yes," Sheen said.
That's where she and management differ.
Zharkikh said she believes people are not aware how small businesses work, and don't realize the café needs frequent turnover of tables to try to make a profit. She said COVID-19 has made business even tougher, taking away robust summer sales last year — sales many Island businesses including hers rely on to endure the winter months.
"We're really struggling," Zharkikh said.
'These are new customers'
A few blocks uptown on Great George Street, Timothy's World Coffee is full of young people using laptops and sipping lattes.
Owner Campbell Webster said many of them are new customers he's never seen before. He encourages them to stay as long as they want, calling them "free decor."
"We're actually very happy to have them here, because these are new customers — we're the new classroom," Webster said. "When this all changes, maybe they're back to their classrooms, they're going to remember that they were here — maybe they'll come back and get their coffee here."
Most employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs next door are still working from home, which Webster said has reduced his customer base.
"We lost some customers and we picked up some new ones," he said. "It's a long-term game, the coffee shop, and what you need is a regular customer ... the way they do that is they come to love it and they come to love your spot and be comfortable there."
Back at Receiver, Francis said even after the pandemic ends and seating is back to full capacity, he hopes customers continue to be mindful of not using the cafe's tables for long periods.
"I don't think it's unreasonable," he said. "We aren't an office, we're not like a collective work space or anything like that, we're a business ... if somebody's grabbing a small coffee and spending eight-and-a-half hours in the shop, they're abusing the system."
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