When You Sit and Work in a Cafe, Do You Need to Buy More?

Categories: SF Etiquette
Fielding your questions about dining out in 21st-century Bay Area restaurants. Have one? Email me.

It's not unrare to settle down in a cafe in San Francisco, look around, and realize that every person around you is staring into a laptop with a glowing apple on its lid. (The liberal elite: such conformists!) This week's etiquette question was voiced by L.T.:
How often in an internet cafe should you buy a new coffee/pastry while you use their internet for hours and hours?
L.T., as a restless writer who spends an awful lot of time working in cafes, I feel you. I find writing more productive when I can make faces into my screen and swear to myself in front of an audience that is not my refrigerator.

A few years ago, there was a movement to "reclaim cafe culture" and disconnect the laptop in favor of promoting "conversation" and "community." This high-minded stance is why Ritual (wi-fi: yes) gets so much more of my money than Four Barrel (wi-fi: sneer). Smart cafes acknowledge that their afternoon traffic is heavily bulked up by people like you and me.

Christian Neugebauer/Flickr
Even if you're sitting up in Coffee Bar's mezzanine, it's polite to keep buying coffee.
I do feel for cafes who claim they lose valuable table space and income when new-economy drones colonize a table in order to do something they should be doing at their home office, which the baristas presume looks like this.

At Matching Half, the cafe where I spend most of my work time, the owners have taken a tack now common in wireless-enabled cafes: blocking the outlets so people can only stay for as long as they have battery power. This seems to be a reasonable compromise, even though it meant buying a new laptop earlier than I'd planned.

The rule I've settled on to keep the baristas from poisoning my cone of creativity with toxic glares: One purchase per hour.

If you're settling in for a two- or three-hour work session, start with a coffee and a good -- and obvious -- tip. (Never sneak it into the jar when their backs are turned.) Then, on the hour, buy a refill, a pastry, or simply a bottle of sparkling water, tipping each time.

Paying $3 to $4 an hour is fair for renting table space and internet access to work, don't you think? I hear you now: The whole reason I'm in a cafe is because I can't afford one of those shared office spaces, and if I spend another hour in my studio I'm going to take a hammer to the only piece of electronics that loves me back.

To you, I say: The library is a serene place to work. Or, if you want to stretch out the time between purchases, you're going to have to pour on the charm. I'm talking learning the name of your barista's partner's cat. Giving him mix CDs not copied off of Pandora, or a jar of lemon curd made with fruit gleaned off your neighbor's tree. Whatever -- and I mean whatever -- it takes to keep your barista on your side.

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I'm laughing.  This is beautiful.  I own a coffee shop.  We had to lock our wifi (gasp).  In order for you to get the password, you must purchase something.  I have been yelled at, cussed at, glared at and treated incredibly horridly by laptop users who feel it is unfair and should have access for free.  I then refer them to the public library down the street.  As for buying something every hour, well, that amuses me.  The average laptop user in our shop will purchase a small coffee or tea and remain for 5-6 hours.  This is the norm, we have it every day.  So my friend, I salute you for supporting your local shop and not taking advantadge of them.  In my world, that is a rare thing.


It seems that at $270 a month ($3 an hour x three hours x 30 days), you'd be better off getting co-working space?  Or, say you work a 40 hour week at a cafe, this equation would be about $500 a month, which is the cost of an office/private desk.  Seems like it would make the cafe not so cheap given that there are many social co-working spots that are the same price, like say, Sandbox Suites in Union Square?

I work out of my home office (which does not look like that link) so I sidestep all these costs, but for those who do, it seems like it's food for thought.


You forget that there is also that fact that for that $270 a month, you are getting a product like coffee that is typically good.  In a shared co-working space, you get nothing.

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