The “cafés vs. freelancers” debate gets recycled in the media about once a year, because there is always a coffee-shop owner trying to ban laptops. You get a half-dozen stories about why they’re doing it (businesses require revenue) and how customers feel about it (they don’t like it). Like the debates over tipping, strollers in restaurants, and accommodating gluten allergies, it’s a cyclical, perennial hospitality argument that’s never resolved.
Except that, in the battle between coffee-shop owners and freelancers trying to use their cafés as offices, one side is clearly wrong, and the other clearly right.
The fact is that coffee shops are private businesses, not public spaces. Yet people will buy a cup of coffee and then spend all day in a café in a way they wouldn’t at, say, a juice bar or restaurant.
As Toronto Star columnist Emma Teitel recently pointed out, “a lot of remote workers are millennials and, what can I say, we have a sketchy history when it comes to paying for things. We rarely pay for news and we pirate entertainment in our sleep. It’s probably not a coincidence that some of us think it’s perfectly normal to sit in a café for seven hours without so much as buying a sandwich.”
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I am not here to hate on a generation. But I am a freelancer, and I am here to say that we do not have the right to use another person’s business as an office. It’s legal but wrong, like clipping your nails on an airplane.
We’ve all walked into a coffee shop to meet a friend and left because there were no free seats and every table was covered in laptops. That’s what we’re talking about here: small-business owners losing paying customers because of the behaviour of non-paying customers (or formerly paying customers or lingerers — whatever you want to call them).
There are people who believe that, if you’re going to work in a coffee shop, you should buy something — a drink or a sandwich, say — for every hour you’re there. But there are many more who believe they’ve rented a day of office space for the price of a macchiato.
I think part of this has to do with not just a lack of empathy, but also financial ignorance. I frequently see this attitude — an irrational resentment toward businesses making money — in online restaurant reviews, where diners often complain about portion size, attempting to calculate the cost of the food that goes into their dishes without acknowledging ancillary costs. It’s as if people are convinced that businesses’ goal of turning profit is some sort of con. A café owner can spend $10,000 a month on rent (plus payroll, insurance, hydro, and taxes) and still have customers slyly suggest that a cup of coffee is “mostly water” and therefore is “pure profit.”
Yes, people go into business to make money. And, yes, some corporations engage in exploitative practices that can make it easier to feel okay about stealing from them. The two are not related at this scale. The hidden fees that credit-card companies charge do not justify hurting small businesses in your neighbourhood.
Freelancers, remote workers, gig-economy labourers: I’m on your side. Freelancing is hard. We spend half our days selling ourselves and our ideas, the other half chasing clients for payment — then sleepless nights worrying about when we’re going to get the actual work done. Clients are forever trying to get more than they paid for. And no matter how much of our time they waste with unhelpful feedback, we’ve got to bite our tongues for fear of being labelled “difficult” in the too-small community in which we work. Meanwhile, we’ve got no benefits, no vacation pay, and no guarantee of the next cheque.
But the fact that we don’t have a steady income doesn’t mean we are morally entitled to continue the cycle of exploitation by cheating café owners out of making a living for themselves. Besides, there’s another place that has Wi-Fi, coffee, and tables. It’s called home.
Yes, it can be hard to stay motivated and focused while working at home. It can be isolating, too. I’ve been working from home for 10 years, and often I miss the human connection of co-workers terribly — of having someone to ask how your weekend was, to compliment your outfit, to note that it’s raining, or to collaborate on ideas. On the other hand, we freelancers also don’t have to attend pointless meetings, or going-away parties for colleagues we barely know.
But maybe you don’t have Wi-Fi, or coffee, or even a table at home. Maybe you have a roommate who’s also trying to work there. Maybe you just need to get out of the house.
When a book deadline demanded that I kick my productivity into overdrive, I started working from the library. They have electrical outlets and Wi-Fi, too. And they’re free. We already pay for them with our taxes (queue tech-bro telling me that he should be able to steal from cafés because his taxes pay for libraries he doesn’t use). The library near me has a reading room where no food, drink, pens, or talking are allowed. It’s like a temple. True, library bathrooms are rarely pristine. But when I needed a break, I’d put my laptop in a locker (for a 25-cent refundable deposit) and head to a nearby café to use the bathroom and get a coffee.
So, then, the real problem isn’t a lack of solutions. It’s the challenge of change. Freelancers have other places to work. And café owners, for their part, have tools at their disposal to challenge the freeloading paradigm. I know a successful café owner who based his shops on an Italian design featuring minimal seating and no tables. No one tries to work in there. A colleague of mine, who likes working in coffee shops, suggested she would gladly pay $3 for every hour that she takes up space. The first business that tries this will reap free publicity. But I suspect the idea would work only if it were incorporated into a new shop, rather than adopted by an existing one. A new café charging a nominal fee for tables is essentially the business model of co-working spaces, with the added benefit of coffee service. But an existing café will be waging a battle with established customers if it tries to change the rules. Freelancers will complain loudly. Though we will be wrong.