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Should Cafes Ask Customers to Leave?

crema cafe harvard square

My favorite cafe asked me to leave last week. For the second time.

I’ll tell you why I feel sad: when I first found Crema Cafe two years ago, I fell in love. I spent so much time there, my sweaters absorbed its scent, an inexorable melange of lattes, carbs, and indie-pop Pandora playlists. The owners described it as a place between home and work; I took that quite literally. I proudly told my friends I was considering moving in.

Over the past two years, I’ve spent so many happy hours in that cafe. I love bringing my laptop to do work on the upstairs level. I’ve forcibly dragged friends there and bought them my favorites, just so they could be converted. I’ve blogged about them, plugged them on Serious Eats, posted photos to various food sites. When I signed up for Mint.com, I budgeted a very liberal portion for “coffee.”

If you ask me for restaurant recommendations, you’ll likely hear raves about their turkey-avocado-jicama-slaw sandwich or their baked-fresh-from-scratch pastries.

crema cafe harvard square pastry

So I disappointed when I was asked to leave during a busy Saturday afternoon to make room for other customers. I’d been there for a little over 2 hours with my laptop, and had planned on taking a seat closer to a wall outlet when one of the owners stepped in. (I had polished off a medium coffee and a chicken sandwich.) He had promised that table to another customer; since I had headphones on, I hadn’t seen the line forming behind me.

He was apologetic. As I was leaving, he apologized again. And this was the second time – a month before, a different owner had asked me to leave, but relented when I bought another sandwich. I’ve generally tried to share my table or buy another pastry during marathon study sessions, but I know I’ve overstayed my welcome in the past.

And I understand why they’re taking a more aggressive tack. Mostly. They charge reasonable prices for freshly made food. They have high labor costs and rent; they depend on table turnover and volume to pay the bills. I ended up chatting that owner for about an hour about the trials of the business world and how to solve the problem of being too popular.

I’m happy Crema has done well. It clearly has no problem attracting loyal customers and long lines. But I’m disappointed that the same place that I cheered for and championed feels that its success is dependent on asking me to leave. Are the two really at odds?

Perhaps this Seth Godin (a well-known marketer) post about “best customers” summarizes some of how I’m feeling:

If you define “best customer” as the customer who pays you the most, then I guess it’s not surprising that the reflex instinct is to charge them more. After all, they’re happy to pay.

But what if you define “best customer” as the person who brings you new customers through frequent referrals, and who sticks with you through thick and thin? That customer, I think, is worth far more than what she might pay you in any one transaction. In fact, if you think of that customer as your best marketer instead, it might change everything.

If you’re a cafe lover, do you think cafe owners should ask customers who have finished eating to leave?

Cafe owners, how do you deal with slow table turnover?


20 Responses to “Should Cafes Ask Customers to Leave?”

  1. I’ve been on both sides of this situation — I worked at a coffee shop for a while during college, and I’ve definitely overstayed my welcome at ones in the past. It’s just a matter of being aware of your surroundings and being polite; What’s the point of being their “best marketer” if the people you refer can’t sit down and enjoy their coffees as well?

    I’m not saying you should have to dine and dash, but if it’s a Sunday morning and the place is hoppin’ it’s not fair that you’re taking up a table for 3 hours, regardless of how many lattes you’re drinking. Tuesday afternoon and the place is slow? Sure, hang out and study for a while. Like I said, it’s about good manners and making sure “I come here all the time” doesn’t turn into the new “Don’t you know who I am?”

    And, hey, at least they were polite and apologetic about it. My old bosses would tell people to “get the [eff] out.” Apparently it was part of their charm, lol.

    Posted by Alli | February 15, 2011, 10:15 am
    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I’m sure you got annoyed at the customers who just never seemed to leave, ha. I think we’re on the same page, for the most part.

      Not sure I find the “get the eff out” attitude charming… Somehow, makes it more ok if guidebooks explicitly advertise this – for example, Shopsin’s is famous for this, but when I went, found them to actually be super nice. To each their own. :)

      Posted by Lingbo Li | February 15, 2011, 2:18 pm
  2. I agree with Alli, it’s all about knowing the time of the day/week and planning your stay accordingly.

    The cafe by my apartment actually turns the internet off on the weekends until 3 PM, so the morning coffee and mid-day sandwich crowds can get in and out without having to navigate through a sea of entrenched laptoppers and med students studying.

    I think it’s the establishment’s right to ask people to leave after a certain time, regardless of whether or not they are continually purchasing things. You’re occupying a table for an extended period and denying other people the experience of the shop, even if you’re spending the same amount of money. It drives people elsewhere because they can never find a seat, etc. and makes for a bad image of the place.

    That said, cafe’s need to walk a fine line between table turnover and alienating their most regular and loyal customers. I think if there’s an established policy, it should be posted at each table or somewhere conspicuous, and they need to stick with it. If a place has that, I’m more than happy to move along if I’m working etc. in a busy time, because that’s what I was led to expect. If it’s just an arbitrary clearing of sitters every once in a while, that gets annoying.

    I don’t get offended, it’s pretty standard. At the end of the day they’re a food service location. I wouldn’t sit in a restaurant that long unless I was with a large group intending on leaving a generous tip.

    Posted by Lou | February 15, 2011, 12:13 pm
  3. “But what if you define “best customer” as the person who brings you new customers through frequent referrals, and who sticks with you through thick and thin? That customer, I think, is worth far more than what she might pay you in any one transaction. In fact, if you think of that customer as your best marketer instead, it might change everything.”

    The problem with this is that everyone assumes they’re one of these customers. You write about the place online whereas the woman next to you might brag to a bunch of members of her church about this awesome coffee shop. You might have a bigger readership but she may bring in more real customers. There’s no way to know for sure.

    If one really wants to have a home base coffee shop then I think it’s a good idea to not look at it as a customer/patron experience but rather a community experience. In that community experience, you’re more than happy to leave if they get super busy. Let them know that all they have to do is ask. I tend to let other customers go ahead of me or do a ‘pay it forward’ thing every once in a while where I’ll buy the drink of someone ordering at the same time I am. The coffee shop loves that part of the goodwill washes off on them.

    I’ve found when I’ve taken the community approach, I get unexpected perks. A local coffee shop will make new drinks (not sample cups but whole cups) for me to try along with my regular order. I’ve also had recipes that called for milk and coffee, neither of which I drink much of or have in my house, and they’ve given me free glasses of each when I needed them.

    So if the coffee shop is empty, stay as long as you’d like but I think part of being a good customer is not becoming an inconvenience to the place you frequent. That means not squatting at a table during rush.

    Posted by Kendra | February 16, 2011, 12:25 am
  4. I definitely see both sides of this situation. Interesting post…

    Posted by Michelle | February 17, 2011, 8:33 am
  5. I like Tosci’s approach. No laptops during brunch (sat/sun mornings). This is completely reasonable — asking people to keep their visits to the point when traffic is at it’s peak. The only difference is that Tosci’s doesn’t serve food every day like Crema.

    Posted by Mike A | February 17, 2011, 3:59 pm
  6. I understand the question but I can’t help thinking if there is a win-win solution for the business as well as the customers.

    Kendra brings up a good point about “community” but the problem will still exist it’s you’re trying to change the way a person feels about it.

    If it’s really about “community” then the business can make it a policy for sharing tables like you brought up doing but also combine an effective customer loyalty program that recognizes “best customers” so they could begin implementing changes to their operations to keep things moving along as well as offer those welcomed freebies.

    Ideas w/ waiting line analysis:
    Reserved area for “best customers”
    Promotions for catering/ to go
    Rent neighboring sitting areas
    Loyalty program

    BTW What type of pastry is that on the 2nd pic?

    Posted by charles lee | February 17, 2011, 4:21 pm
    • Interesting ideas! I definitely think that adding incentives for to-go orders is a logical way to address it. I suggested they get rid of the outlets, but the owner said that they didn’t mind people plugging in during quiet times. Still, even I wouldn’t mind if they got rid of outlets – and I’m a power laptopper.

      I’m not sure how I feel about the “community” point. Like you said, difficult to change how people perceive their relationship with Crema. At least to do this for every customer. I think that approach also unfairly implies that other customers are selfish, greedy, etc.

      The pastry is a canele bordelais.

      Posted by Lingbo Li | February 17, 2011, 11:42 pm
  7. 2 hrs is too long if they are busy, people wait for tables, Time manner is to share your happiness with others, so if they are too busy, Long line waiting, then leaving is seems to be a better manner.

    Posted by Super | February 19, 2011, 9:20 pm
  8. I totally understand and it’s definitely a delicate issue. But I think you had gotten so into the “Crema-best-customer-loyalty-my-fave-neighbor…etc” groove that you forgot your manners. There’s got to be hundreds of Harvard students, Cambridge locals, Bostonians alike that are “best customers” in their own right and it’s really unfair to plan to spend +2 hours on a Saturday afternoon (peak time of peak peak time!) in a Cafe as small and as popular as Crema. Just grow up and bite the bullet!

    Posted by JM | February 28, 2011, 4:19 pm
    • Hi JM

      Thanks for your input, and agreement that it can be a tricky issue. But by the same token, writing “grow up and bite the bullet” is shortsighted misses the point I was trying to make. My intention was to open up a dialogue about the incident, emphasizing that I also understand the business’s viewpoint.

      Posted by Lingbo Li | February 28, 2011, 4:41 pm
  9. I think two hours is way too long at crowded times–I think you’ve got about the amount of time it should normally take to eat or drink whatever you’ve ordered, plus a few minutes to digest.

    If it’s not crowded (and Crema is easier in the evenings I find) you can linger. Hi-Rise can be a good alternate, but has a different set of problems.

    Posted by Thermidor | March 13, 2011, 1:27 pm
  10. I think you are way too sensitive, you think that because you have a certain status you HAVE to be treated as such. You need to face the fact that you are not a celebrity but perhaps just a neuveu riche/socialite that likes to eat out.

    Posted by Ohtreploxed | March 29, 2011, 11:16 am
  11. That’s the issue with a popular place. I understand the business’s viewpoint. Their coffee definitely looks good!

    Posted by vietfoodrecipes | March 30, 2011, 4:16 pm
  12. Great topic and one that must be increasingly becoming an issue of concern for restaurants offering wifi. I was oblivious to this problem until I actually took the time to read Panera Bread’s wifi policy before logging in one night which politely requests that guests be considerate of others who may need a seat during their busy times and not to take a bigger table or booth than necessary then as well which is often desirable for those with other devices or materials to accommodate. I think they have a suggested time limit that they request you observe but I have yet to witness anyone actually being personally ejected or told to leave. I disagree with cutting off wifi at peak hours. Since getting a wifi only iPad for Christmas I purposefully seek out restaurants almost exclusively that provide complimentary wireless broadband service. If the business has complicated password restrictions, unreliable service or limited hours of connectivity it will probably deter my patronage. As a leasing representative for a shopping center investor we are concerned with helping businesses bring in and keep as many customers as possible. A store brimming with customers at tables is usually a highly sought after goal and a surface indicator of good business, but I can see where the line between offering food and beverage service in a comfortable setting with ancillary access to data communications, and hosting a library environment of personal study space is becoming perhaps a bit blurred. A recent stop at the Starbucks in Westwood adjacent to the campus of UCLA illuminated this dilemma in a fresh way for me. That place was flush to the gills with laptops and students fixed so firmly to their seats that wild horses, or the $900 in cash recently offered to the New Yorker first in line at the iPad2 release, would not be enough to pull them away from their coveted study spots. There is certainly a challenge to be found in striking a balance in this area.

    Posted by Keith Heeley | April 1, 2011, 4:47 am
    • Great response, Keith! I totally agree.

      You might find interesting that someone actually asked the same question to the CEO of Starbucks, who was in town to promote his new book. His answer to the dilemma? That Starbucks can’t be competitive and offer the best customer experience unless it offers free wi-fi.

      I found that illuminating, and refreshing – and noted how the servers at my local Starbucks greeted everyone with enthusiastic smiles and remembered patron’s names.

      Posted by Lingbo | April 8, 2011, 1:20 am
  13. That looks delicious!!

    Posted by Tim | April 12, 2011, 3:39 am
  14. I work in the service industry, and this is my opinion:

    1. When it comes to a cafe setting (order/pay at a cashier, take your stuff to your own table, bus your table, etc.), I agree with the general consensus that you should abide by the manners of recognizing when it’s busy and people need your seat if you’ve been there a long time, and not be offended if the management requests that you allow a new customer to take a seat.
    2. When it’s the topic of a place where someone greets you at your table and waits on you, the former advice still takes precedent, but there’s more to add. If you know a place is closing, don’t stay after you’re done eating. Where I work, we’re not allowed to ask people to leave the dining room when it closes. I was stuck there two hours after we closed tonight waiting for two tables to leave, one who insisted I transfer them to the bar (thus avoiding tipping me for an hour and a half of bringing them beers — they didn’t order any food at all) and another who sat there for two and a half hours also without ordering food. They left me $5. Many tipped employees do not make minimum wage — in Maryland, we make $3.63 an hour and very few of us ever see a paycheck that doesn’t say “Non-negotiable–wages allocated to taxes and deductions.” So I made $2.50 an hour for those two hours tonight, and I depend wholly on tips to pay my living.

    All restaurants and cafes are grateful for business, but they also have needs and business hours within which they operate, and they have to accommodate the largest possible group of people. I’m shocked every week how many people just stay knowing that we’re closed and that people can’t leave until they do. I like my job, but servers and tipped employees are given very few rights.

    Posted by Emmie Mears | September 17, 2011, 12:16 am
  15. I’ve been moved on from a cafe before I was even able to order something. Following a long day at work I found myself a small table on the outskirts of patio cafe that overlooked a river. The establishment was nothing fancy – plastic chairs and tables along a sidewalk – but it was a really nice atmosphere and I found myself spacing out as I sat there enjoying the view. Minutes later the one staff member, possibly the manager, literally asked me to order something or move on. So I politely chose to moved on.

    If the waitress applied polite & professional etiquette and simply asked what I might like to order, I would ordinarily have been prompted to do so; but I was particularly offended because I was one of the few people actually in the establishment. The cafe was almost empty except for a hand full of patrons. The street was quiet and behind me were several vacant tables. It wasn’t like I taking up space or pushing out customers.

    Even if I sat down with no intention of ordering something; business & marketing trends suggest that the longer someone remains within an establishment, the more likely they are to make a purchases, and the more people there are in an cafe or restaurant establishment, the more likely the other people with join them.

    I was kind of shocked because while I might have been taking up space sitting there not having paid my service fee (at that present time); the cafe was literally empty; the street was quiet and behind me were several vacant tables. Since I wasn’t pushing out customers I decided I would settle a bit before making my order and fetching a newspaper.

    Posted by Andrew | February 6, 2015, 6:57 pm

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Lana Lingbo Li

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