The folks at Gawker have been writing recently about anecdotal reports that some customers in New York City are being politely asked by Starbucks employees, or police, to either buy something or leave.
One of the articles describes the languid customers as "loitering laptop hobos." It includes an (initials only) account of a man who was pretty peeved when an officer told him he had outstayed his welcome at a Manhattan Starbucks.
At this point, no one from Starbucks headquarters has returned my call for comment. This story will be updated the second a reply comes in. See update below.
So, for now, all I have are more anecdotal, er, facts -- if local ones. I've spent many a caffeinated and productive morning at my local Starbucks and no one there has given me so much as an exasperated glance from behind the cappuccino machine. On Tuesday, employees at both Starbucks within the boundaries of Fairlawn-Bath Patch told me that they have never been told to tell anyone to pay up or be gone.
Still, the story has me questioning my own coffee house etiquette: What defines a loitering laptop hobo? Am I one?
In my pre-laptop waitressing days, we used to call these customers "campers." You didn't want a camper in your section because a 20 percent tip on a $5 tab (from a table that sits occupied for three hours) is a poor payment for anyone's effort.
My campers staked their claims in a restaurant where tables turned over, at minimum, every hour. I'll admit that I sometimes expedited their exits by clearing the table of placemats...then silverware...then water glasses... You get the idea: more tables, more money.
This seems different. Maybe. Coffee shops have created a marketing culture that encourages customers to sip and sit a spell. So, is it rude to change that course, or just a good business practice in tough economic times?
Sure, I have camped in my share of Starbucks, but never without a purchase -- or two.
Is that enough? I'm pretty torn now. How much table time are a few cups of coffee and bagel worth?
Excuse me while I go pay for a refill.
Update: 10/5/2011 Starbucks spokesman Alan Hilowitz said Wednesday: "There is no national policy whatsoever on how long someone can stay at a table in Starbucks -- whether or not they buy anything. As you know our locations are community gathering places where people can use the Internet or do business, and we want to keep it that way."