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Sorry, Kids: Screen Time is Over at this Cafe

The state of Vermont, in the northeast US, does things a little differently than the rest of the country. It’s …

By Dave Eagle

The state of Vermont, in the northeast US, does things a little differently than the rest of the country. It’s the only state in the country whose capital doesn’t have a McDonald’s. There are only five Starbucks inside its borders—as a matter of perspective, know that there are 17 inside a single airport in Chicago. Just a few days ago, the town where I live held its annual Strolling of the Heifers parade, a very mellow variation on the Running of the Bulls that shines a light on the state’s dairy industry. So I wasn’t really surprised when I read an article about a small cafe in Burlington, VT that banned laptops and tablets in its dining area. Of course August First Bakery & Cafe is in Burlington, the city whose mayor once was this guy named Bernie you might’ve heard of recently. Sure. It made sense that here in Vermont is where one cafe puts up a sign encouraging “reading, daydreaming, and chit chatting” as alternatives to screens.aug23

But not so fast. It’s all well and good to say these are just Vermont hippies enforcing their luddite worldview on customers. The fact is, though, cafes lose money when you set up shop and linger for hours. Even if you buy a couple of meals over the course of 3 or 4 hours, that’s far less business the cafe could’ve done if someone walked in and every 30 minutes that table was empty. A quickserve cafe isn’t like a full service restaurant. Customers aren’t going to wait around for a table, even for 15 minutes. They may get something to go instead, but often they’ll just go somewhere else where they can sit. This is exactly what the owner of August First said was happening at her shop, and even though she slowly phased out cafe screentime that didn’t stop the number of complaints from going up. Fortunately, it didn’t stop her sales from going up, either; August First has seen its sales revenue increase since instituting the ban. Even though that makes all the sense in the world, there’s still a counter intuitive aspect to it.

In this day and age, wouldn’t forbidding electronics cost you customers in the first place? How many people will just a walk away if they see a sign advertising the lack of wi-fi alongside laptop and tablet restrictions?

This is not how you pack to go grab a bite to eat.Photo by Do8y (Flickr)
This is not how you pack to go grab a bite to eat.
Photo by Do8y (Flickr)

It might be hard to answer that question concretely, but consider the person who just walked away: rejecting a cafe on the grounds that he couldn’t use his laptop is like leaving a circus performance because it didn’t feature accountants doing math. When you had dreams of opening a cafe, did any part of it involve serving up bandwidth to people? I’m guessing the answer is “No.” You wanted to serve up delicious food and put smiles on people’s faces. That person who walked away isn’t going to be your ideal customer. You may have lost out on a sale, but he just made room for another 5 or 6 of them. And if you’re currently offering free wi-fi with no time limits on table occupancy, there’s actually a way to see how much laptops are costing you.

4__augustfirst_3Even though you might not be a full service restaurant, you can still benefit from Kounta’s Tables module to start quantifying things just like this. Every time someone sits down with a laptop, star the timer on their table and note the customer is using a computer. Start tracking every table, whether there’s a laptop or not. After a few days you’ll be able to see the discrepancy in revenue at tables with a laptop, and tables without. After a week, you’ll be alarmed at how much you’re losing. After a month, you may just cry a little bit. For a large place that does a steady To Go business, this might not be such a big deal, But for a smaller cafe with limited seating and a cramped counter area for placing orders, you might find you can’t afford to keep offering what’s essentially free office space for students and professionals. This all-or-nothing solution might not be for everyone—maybe you just institute laptop free zones, or you actually charge people to sit per hour—but you’ll be able to find the right approach for your shop. Using technology to help phase out or curb technology helps you do so with precision.