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Here in New York, we are in the doldrums of winter, and the 100-year-old radiators in my apartment are proving woefully inadequate at keeping me warm. Instead of risking freezing in my own house, I’ve been taking my laptop to a nearby cafe. It has wifi, a pastry shop, and most importantly, reliable heating.
I do not even I like coffee that much! I’m just trying to avoid freezing my butt off.
The only problem is that when I spend an afternoon working from the cafeteria, I feel like a complete idiot. It makes me paranoid that I’m not buying enough, that I’m taking up too much space, that baristas are secretly judging me for bankrupting their small business with my lizard habits.
To make matters worse, there isn’t much information online about the “office” etiquette. Maybe it’s not a big deal. Maybe no one else cares about looking like a freeloading idiot. But I certainly do, and I’ve been worrying about how much to budget for my increasingly frequent coffee sessions.
How much money should I spend when I sit in a coffee shop?
I contacted Claire Bowen, a self-described “coffee entrepreneur” and one of the authors of The Daily Grind: How to Open and Run a Coffee Shop That Makes Money, to get some answers. Bowen started by explaining to me why cafes offer decidedly non-cafe features in the first place.
“We tell our clients that their main business is not to sell coffee; is providing hospitality. The coffee shop business model has been based on selling a comfortable space for a period of time for the price of a cup of coffee for hundreds of years,” she adds. “Typically, the more charming the atmosphere and the food, the more often people will visit and the more they will spend.”
It all goes back to the idea that a café is a third place, as sociologist Ray Oldenburg called it in 1989. A third place is a home away from home, not your house, not your job, but a place like a library or a Church.
Bowen explains that creating a third place isn’t cheap. The biggest costs for a cafe are “staff salaries, the cost of ingredients, and then rent and power, in that order,” he says. The simple process of opening the store for the day can cost $300.
“People don’t necessarily think about that when they expect free internet 24/7 or buy a cup of coffee and camp out for four, five or six hours,” says Melissa Villanueva, founder and CEO of Brewpoint Coffee in Illinois.
Villanueva says to pause and really consider what’s going on in that (heated) space that I enjoy so much. Cafés often diversify their offerings as a financial strategy. For example, it has a 4,000-square-foot location where it not only allows people to sit and work, but also roasts coffee beans, hosts events, allows private rentals, and more.
The revenue generated by those opportunities allows the store to keep the lights on. But a warm place to sit? That’s not the core purpose, especially if I’m not contributing significantly to the bottom line.
“Everything else we are giving you is a service we don’t have to give. It’s part of our mission and what we want to bring to the community, but who pays for that?” Villanueva added. “At the end of the day, a $5 latte doesn’t cover our rent, furniture, and upkeep.”
This is true in normal times, but especially during the pandemic, which caused 38% of small businesses to cut their budgets to survive, according to one. poll. The supply chain situation isn’t helping either: coffee cups and straws are in short supply, and the price of arabica coffee recently hit a 10-year high.
With all of this in mind, Villanueva says you should plan on buying $5 worth of product per hour, at a minimum.
“Think about it: If you’re going to spend three hours, spend $15: a drink or two and a cake,” she says.
Along the same lines, Bowen recommends buying “something for every moment of the day” I’m there, which includes breakfast, lunch and afternoon.
There are also other ways to be a good office worker. Bowen says to keep my personal items close and to be nice to the staff. Tips are always appreciated. Spreading the word about how great your coffee is, both in real life and by leaving five-star reviews online, can’t hurt. And I always have to be careful not to take up more space than I need.
It may seem obvious, but “if you’re an individual, find a smaller table so the cafeteria can accommodate larger groups when they arrive,” says Villanueva.
The bottom line
Nursing a cheap cup of tea is not okay. If I spend several hours in a coffee shop, I should buy multiple items and lose at least $5 each time. After all, I am taking advantage of various free services (cough, heat, cough) for which the cafe is footing the bill.
In that sense, Villanueva says, I shouldn’t be surprised if the retailer raises its prices in the near future, given current trends. These increases may seem arbitrary, but they are often out of the owner’s control.
“If you really think this coffee shop should exist in terms of having a space for a customer, that third place, it costs something,” he adds. “Are we willing to shoulder the burden together?”
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