No Laptops, No Wi-Fi: How One Cafe Fired Up Sales

Apr 10, 2014
Originally published on April 10, 2014 7:46 am

Customers chat, read the paper and order sandwiches and espresso drinks at the counter of August First Bakery & Cafe in Burlington, Vt., but there's something different here. Where there used to be the familiar glow of laptop screens and the clicking of keyboards, now the devices are banned.

"I was here working on my laptop when I looked over and saw that there's a sign that says 'laptop-free,' " says Luna Colt, a senior at the University of Vermont.

During a recent visit, Colt is shocked that using her computer is against the rules.

"My friend and I started talking about it because we're both on screens," Colt says. "Then I said, 'Should I go up there and apologize?' "

When owner Jodi Whalen first opened four years ago, she initially offered free Wi-Fi to customers. Students like Colt flocked to the business and started typing away — and staying. All day.

"We saw a lot of customers come in, look for a table, not be able to find one and leave," Whalen says. "It was money flowing out the door for us."

That's why Whalen decided there'd be no more screens. It was a gradual move. She started by shutting down the Wi-Fi two years ago. Then, the cafe banned screens during lunch.

"A lot of people were disappointed," Whalen says. "But we actually saw our sales increase."

What's socially acceptable when it comes to using a laptop in public, anyway? Student Luna Colt says it's about how much money you spend.

"You should buy something every two hours if you're going to be here and just work all day," Colt says.

As long as you're being a good customer, she says, there's nothing wrong with working on a laptop. It's why she's been coming here in the first place.

"If I was going to be here all day, I'd probably come here and eat breakfast. Then a few hours later, I'd have lunch," Colt says. "I would guess that wouldn't lose them any money, really."

Not quite, according to Whalen. It's less about how much any given laptop user buys, and more about table space.

"Even if they think they're a good customer because they buy lunch, they're still here for four hours," Whalen says.

Stephen Gonzalez says when he has come here to work, he has paid attention to the number of tables that are free.

"If there's no tables or if there's like one table, I probably would never sit down and set up shop," Gonzalez says.

Whalen says it's not just about money.

"To walk into a place and see people looking at their screens with a blank stare, it takes away just kind of the community aspect of it — of you being in a place with other people," Whalen says.

The policy makes Gonzalez consider how much he really needs technology. Recently, he sat at a table with a notebook open.

"I thought, can I actually do work and be screen-free?" he says. "Yeah, I think I can."

Everything in moderation, though. Smartphone users won't be kicked out — at least not for now.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

At many coffee shops people view free wi-fi as essential as, say, cream and sugar. Customers go to sip and to type, whether they're being productive or at least want to feel like they're being productive. Well, one coffee shop owner in New England has had enough. She feels like laptops and tablets have actually become bad for business and so she has banned them. Vermont Public Radio's Annie Russell went to see how going unplugged has played out.

ANNIE RUSSELL, BYLINE: August First is a popular coffee shop and bakery in the heart of Burlington, Vermont. Customers chat, read the paper and order sandwiches and espresso drinks at the counter. And like in a lot of coffee shops, there's the familiar glow of laptop screens and the clicking of keyboards.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYBOARD CLICKING)

RUSSELL: But not anymore. The cafe banned laptops and tablets.

LUNA COLT: I was here working on my laptop, when I looked over and saw there was a sign that says: Laptop free.

RUSSELL: Luna Colt is a senior at the University of Vermont. She comes to the bakery to study. She's shocked that using her computer is against the rules.

COLT: My friends and I started talking about it because we're both on screens. And then I said, should I go up there and apologize?

RUSSELL: When owner Jodi Whalen first opened four years ago, she initially offered free wi-fi to customers. Students like Colt flocked to the business and started typing away. And staying. All day.

JODI WHALEN: We saw a lot of customers come in, look for a table, not be able to find one and leave. So it was kind of money flowing out the door for us.

RUSSELL: That's why Whalen decided: no more screens. It was a gradual move. She started by shutting down the wi-fi two years ago. Then the shop banned screens during lunch.

WHALEN: A lot of people were disappointed, but we actually saw our sales increase.

RUSSELL: And what's socially acceptable when it comes to using a laptop in public, anyway? Luna Colt says it's about how much money you spend.

COLT: I think you should buy something every two hours if you're going to be here and just work all day.

RUSSELL: She says as long as you're being a good customer, there's nothing wrong with working on a laptop. It's why she comes here in the first place.

COLT: I mean, if I was going to be here all day, I'd probably come here and eat breakfast. Then a few hours later I'd have lunch. So, I mean, I would guess that wouldn't lose them any money, really.

RUSSELL: Not quite, according to Jodi Whalen. It's less about how much any given laptop user buys. It's all about the table space.

WHALEN: Even if they think they're a good customer because they buy lunch, they're still here for four hours.

RUSSELL: Stephen Gonzalez also comes here to work, but says he pays attention to the number of tables free.

STEPHEN GONZALEZ: If there's no tables, or if there's like one table, I probably would never sit down and set up shop.

RUSSELL: And Whalen says it's not just about money.

WHALEN: To walk into a place and see people looking at their screens with a blank stare, it takes away just kind of the community aspect of it. Of you being in a place with other people.

RUSSELL: Gonzalez says the policy makes him consider how much he really needs technology. He's at a table with a notebook open.

GONZALEZ: I thought, can I actually do work and be screen free? And I thought, yeah, think I can.

RUSSELL: But everything in moderation. Smart phone users won't be kicked out, at least not for now. For NPR News, I'm Annie Russell in Burlington, Vermont.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: As long as you are not on a laptop at that coffee shop in Vermont, we hope that you will come visit MORNING EDITION's Facebook page. You can also find us on Twitter @nprgreene and @nprinskeep and @morningedition. You're listening this morning on your public radio station and they have a website as well. We encourage you to pay them a visit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.