August First Goes Laptop Free
No Laptops, No Wi-Fi: How One Cafe Fired Up Sales
NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO
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 find one and leave,” owner Jodi 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.
Why a Burlington bakery is saying so long to laptops
Posted: Mar 26, 2014 6:29 PM EDTUpdated: Mar 28, 2014 5:00 PM EDT
“Personally, I like to work in coffee shops,” she said.
Trouble is, among the homemade soups, salads and sandwiches here, the cafe scratched some things from its menu. Now, no screens are allowed.
“It’s a nice place to come and work, but we can’t be a workplace,” said Jodi Whalen, who owns August First.
August First wants to stop so-called coffee shop cybersquatting, where customers stay for hours, taking up tables without ordering much.
“Sometimes five or six hours and it prevented other customers from finding seats,” Whalen said.
Whalen studied the number of lost customers due to lack of seating and estimates squatters ate up about $15,000 in potential profits last year, as would-be diners just walked out the door.
“We have tried to compromise for years,” she said. “But we just reached the point where we have to make this big change.”
Laptops and tablets are no longer welcome here.
“I suspect they are going to lose some customers because of it,” said Paul Olsen, who teaches business courses at St. Michael’s College.
Olsen worries a screen-free policy could end up biting August First.
“Consumers are going to judge and decide with their wallets,” Olsen said. “You never want to say to customers, you’re not welcome here. And really, they are sort of saying that.”
He points out that patrons can still read books and newspapers and use their phones for as long as they want, and says business lunches could be canned if screens can’t be used.
“The jury is out if the increased business they get from more turnover in the restaurant will outweigh losing some of those customers,” Olsen said.
August First says it’s not worried about losing business. It says the trend of cafes going screen-free started on the West Coast and it’s slowly catching on here. In fact, Whalen says she’s been contacted by other areas businesses, wondering how it’s going.
“A lot of people understand this is a bakery and cafe; it’s not an office,” Whalen said.
She says places welcoming customers with free Wi-Fi in recent years now recognize it might be bad for business.
“The pendulum is swinging back because businesses are losing money with having Wi-Fi there,” she said. “Unfortunately a lot of people have taken advantage of it.”
Palchak had no problem with the new policy. She just might choose a different café next time.
“If I had known about the rule, I probably wouldn’t have come,” she said.
But on days when she’s got no work to do, she’ll return. She’ll just leave the laptop at home.
“I really enjoy this space. Laptop-free or not,” Palchak said. “I’ll come back.