At LEAR FAYE (2270 Commercial Drive), a young woman in a turquoise turtleneck reads a friend’s tarot cards. Nearby, a few pals pass around a baby. It’s a typical coffee-shop scene, but there’s a key piece missing: the ubiquitous creative-class worker typing on a laptop.
That’s because Lear Faye doesn’t allow laptops. The new coffeehouse is one of a few in Vancouver whose owners are struggling to run a vibrant and profitable business while meeting customers’ changing expectations of café culture.
“I mean this with love, but we don’t want to be an office away from home,” says Dolly Reno, co-owner of Lear Faye. She and her brother, Jess Reno, opened the café in June.
The siblings, both in their early 20s, prefer to emulate the coffee shops they grew up with on the Danforth in Toronto—a lively area where neighbours gather in the community’s cafés.
They did offer Wi-Fi temporarily while their new business struggled to attract customers. But soon they noticed laptop users were taking up valuable space for hours. The café has only 21 seats.
“We want people to be comfortable,” Dolly says. “But we’re also trying to run a business.” So up went the sign by the cash register proclaiming their business a laptop-free establishment.
Up the street from Lear Faye, Prado Café (1938 Commercial Drive) is a sea of MacBooks shining in the coffee shop’s pale interior. The clickity-clack of typing is muffled only by the occasional sound of the espresso machine and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”.
Kristin Dowell is a professor who frequents Prado about five times a week with her laptop. The curly-haired anthropologist goes there to offset her solitary work.
“I go to coffee shops because I like to not be in my office at home all the time,” Dowell says. “I like to be around other people.”
She thinks laptops in cafés are a fact of life that proprietors have to accept.
“The reality is that a lot of people, given how employment and work conditions have changed over the years, work in coffee shops,” she says.
Other café owners say the expectations of customers like Dowell, combined with the competitive nature of the business, mean laptops are here to stay.
“We have over 100 seats,” Vince Piccolo, co-owner of Forty Ninth Parallel Coffee Roasters, says by phone. “And we need to fill our seats.”
His two coffee shops, at 2902 Main Street and 2198 West 4th Avenue, offer people who prefer to work in public spaces free Wi-Fi. He says businesses that don’t are taking a risk.
“You’ll see a lot of cafés get bad reviews because they didn’t have Wi-Fi,” says Piccolo, referring to websites like Yelp.
He’s found that his customers are generally respectful in how much time and money they spend at his establishments. Also, Forty Ninth Parallel’s Wi-Fi Internet access shuts off automatically after a person uses it for three hours.
JJ Bean owner John Neate Jr. says he “gave up the fight” on free Internet at most of his locations about 18 months ago.
“When we didn’t have Wi-Fi we got complaints from those people, and when we do have Wi-Fi we get complaints from customers who can’t get seats,” says Neate over the phone while in Toronto on business. “We’ve tried to work through it, but it’s an ongoing thing.”
He says one of the biggest issues with people coming in to work on laptops is when they park themselves in one seat and all their belongings on another three.
JJ Bean manages laptop users by moving them to smaller tables or asking them to share their spot with other customers. And if they’re not purchasing any food or beverages, a manager will suggest that they do.
Neate wants to ensure his businesses remain community meeting places that are filled with the sound of people talking.
“I’m not giving up on that fight,” he says. “That’s for sure.”
At Lear Faye, Jess and Dolly Reno say it’s the sound of chatter that gets them most excited about their business. In their café they’ve seen couples get together, friendships form, and neighbours meet.
And they say they’ve seen more of that since they instituted their no-laptop policy.
“We’ve noticed a change,” Dolly says. “We’ve noticed a hubbub.”
As for business, it’s picked up. People see open seats and come in for lunch. The café recently began staying open in the evenings, offering small plates, wine, and beer.
“It’s an experience. It’s a truly social experience that you can get,” Dolly says. “Maybe you come in alone, but you get to know your neighbour.”