Laptop ban in cafes sparks fresh debate

Laptop ban in cafes sparks fresh debate

With a news story in Brighton’s Argus last week reporting a growing number of cafes banning computers to “encourage good old-fashioned conversation – and to drive business”, Coffee Business World asks operators their view.

“Tech-loving Brighton and Hove is full of both students and freelancers who favour working in cafes to libraries or setting up a workspace at home, but a number of venues are resisting demand to accommodate them. Dough Lover in Trafalgar Street is the first café in the city to fully ban laptops and tablets – and does not offer free wi-fi either,” read a report in The Argus on February 19. Dough Lover is not alone, according to the report, which lists Marwoods, Presuming Ed and Café Coho as also implementing laptop-free zones.

It’s a problem we can all relate to, both from a consumer and business owner perspective. There’s nothing worse than seeing people waiting for somewhere to sit, while two or three tables are sole-occupied by a lone worker logged into the free wi-fi with only one cold coffee for company. However, with more and more of us working ‘on the hoof’ and from home, having somewhere to escape to for sustenance, human interaction, a table and free wi-fi has never been more essential.

To zone, to ban or to welcome all – that’s the question.

Caravan Restaurants, Bar & Coffee Roastery’s Laura Harper-Hinton told Coffee Business World: “It’s an interesting one. I was at the refurbished Soho House the other day – a place I have associated with being able to work with a laptop anywhere – and they have designated laptop free zones too, probably for similar reasons.

“It’s not something we will consider implementing in the near future, though I do appreciate where café owners are coming from to some degree. Coffee shops/cafes have become a home away from home in many regards, so it’s a tough one to legislate.”

TY (formerly known as Timberyard) markets itself as “dynamic, independent creative workspace fused with speciality tea and coffee” and offers rooms for meetings and event spaces too.

Co-founder Darren Elliott believes choosing the right location for such an offer is key. “We opened our first site in Old Street. It’s very ‘tech-ed’ up around there with lots of innovation and start-ups and we designed spacious spaces for remote workers who embraced it. Everything from music levels, natural light and services were all considered – along with great products. It brought people flocking in and put us ahead of what other coffee shops were doing, at a time when some were actively discouraging home workers.”

TY, which currently operates in Seven Dials (Covent Garden) and within Facebook’s new London HQ, charges premium prices and takes a friendly but firm approach to customer service, with orders taken at tables and staff empowered to ‘turn tables’ to ensure that no-one sits there for hours without buying. TY’s average spend per head is £7-£7.50.

 “In London, people are happy to pay for quality and there is more expendable income in the city. They understand that the alternative is hot-desking or buying expensive work space. With us they’re getting fast wi-fi, air con, great products and all in a carefully crafted environment to work in – without any membership fees.”

At Artisan, which operates four sites in London, Coffee Business World saw a third of tables taken by laptop workers in its busy Ealing site last week, but most had drifted off before the busy Artisan Ealinglunchtime period approached. Co-founder Magda Harrison explained: “We love the vibe and hustle and bustle of daily life, be that mums catching up over a lovely coffee, to friends discussing their night out or writers typing away on the keyboard – each demographic helps build fantastic atmosphere within our shops.”

Pret A Manger agreed: “We don’t have any policies in place around the usage of laptops in our shops. Customers are welcome to come in, use our wi-fi and enjoy the Pret shop.”

While Tom Vincent from 200 Degrees, which operates six sites in the Midlands, north of England and Wales, added that size of venue had an impact too. “This is a tough one and I don’t think there’s a ‘one size fits all’ answer. It really does depend on many factors, such as how large the venue is and how the trade varies throughout the day. For example, most of our stores are large enough for this not to be a significant problem and these workers help to make the place look busy even at the very quiet times.

“Managed well, I don’t think we’d ever consider imposing a ban, but I can completely understand why smaller venues (or maybe those close to a large student population) may feel the need, and we should all respect any owner’s decision because you can guarantee it hasn’t been made lightly. It’s maybe similar to the (very emotive) argument about banning children!”

Also in the Midlands, BEARs co-founder and marketing director Craig Bunting almost lamented that banning laptops wasn’t an issue for him to have to consider: “We don’t have this problem in the Midlands at the moment. We love people popping in and using our space in a way that suits them.”

So it appears that the office-less workforce can breathe easy. However, the last word goes to TY’s Elliott who operated businesses in Brighton until 2006. “We think about opening in Brighton from time-to-time but keep returning to the conclusion that it’s not right for us,” he said. “Everyone seems to want something for nothing. There’s a density of creative people, but not many on the tech side, who we’ve found in London are more than happy to pay for quality food, drink and work space.”

  • If you’d like to add to the debate or raise another issue, please get in contact by emailing the editor, Kate Oppenheim:
  • Artisan’s Magda Harrison, Caravan’s Laura Harper-Hinton, 200 Degrees Tom Vincent and BEAR's Craig Bunting are all members of European Coffee Expo’s Steering Panel.

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            To register to visit European Coffee Expo, click here.

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