Coffee shop customers who camp out hurt sales. Subscriptions could be a solution.

Coffee shop customers who camp out hurt sales. Subscriptions could be a solution.

Coffee shop customers who camp out hurt sales. Subscriptions could be a solution.

Some back-of-the-napkin math for those of you reading this in a cozy little nook at your favorite coffee place: $7 for a latte split over a two-and-a-half-hour stay is an hourly rate of less than three bucks. It’s a relatively affordable number in an economy plagued by persistent inflation and shrimp-induced bankruptcies. For a lot of local, independent coffee shops, it’s actually too affordable.

“To be in a healthy and profitable place financially, we need to do approximately $20 per seat, per day,” said Tim Taylor, coffee consultant and owner of three artisan shops in Chicago. “On a weekend, we do this. On a weekday, we generally don’t.”

Taylor’s largest location, Pedestrian Coffee Belmont, is 10 feet away from an elevated rail stop that clocks over 2 million annual entries, one of the busiest in the city. His coffee is better than the alternative nearby (a Dunkin’ kiosk). Coupled with the fact that the shop has solid Wi-Fi, good outlet access, and even better coffee, this has made Pedestrian a 50-seat haven for remote workers, who often park on a stool or take a two-top and just hang out.

“People want to be in a busy shop. There’s that community draw … but I also see and hear the disappointment when someone shows up and can’t find a seat,” Taylor said. “It does hurt our bottom line and threaten our ability to be profitable if a customer only spends $5 and takes up a seat for four-plus hours.”

The issue posed by those “campers” has been a “recurring topic of discussion” among coffee shop owners Taylor bumps into. After another Pedestrian location had to trim hours despite being in a hip neighborhood with plenty of young professionals and latte-sipping millennials, Taylor had an idea: a membership plan.

For $20, a patron could reserve a seat for, say, four hours, Taylor suggested. “We’d likely include a drink and a pastry with that reservation.”

Balking at yet another subscription in 2024 is sensible, but without new schemes, the camper conundrum won’t be going away on its own. More Americans than ever are drinking coffee, and prepared coffee—grabbing a latte or cold brew from a local coffee shop—is gaining popularity among those who reported drinking coffee in the last day.

Coffee shops have always been good for productivity, and after the pandemic, even the libertarians at the Cato Institute agree that remote work is here to stay. Meanwhile, the number of places those remote workers can work besides their home is shrinking. Take La Colombe: The Philadelphia-based chain with a national footprint has long taken a more confrontational approach.

“At La Colombe, we created our cafes with the intention of providing an environment that enables individuals to either purposefully or accidentally interact with other human beings—a place that is inviting for you to gather with friends,” reads their café FAQ. “For this reason, many of our cafes do not offer WiFi.”

In 2018, La Colombe caved and started offering Wi-Fi at certain shops on weekdays. Calls to La Colombe’s five Chicago locations landed one Wi-Fi “yes,” two “noes,” one recurring busy signal, and one “no more indoor seating.” Its swanky no–Wi-Fi Gold Coast location added a laugh and a friendly “we get this question a lot.” The chain isn’t exactly struggling—it was recently acquired by Chobani for $900 million—but its ad hoc Wi-Fi policy can lead to unforgettable moments of dread as someone sits down to work, only to realize that there’s no Wi-Fi.

At the Goliath level, Starbucks’ approach is even simpler: Just shrink the store! As part of its 2023 “Triple Shot Reinvention With Two Pumps” plan, the company will focus on “purpose-defined” spots, aka pickup, drive-thru only, double-sided drive-thru, and delivery only.

Back at the local level, shops like Devoción in New York are trying third-party options that print a time-limited Wi-Fi access code on your receipt. Need to send more emails? Buy a refill and hope the printer’s not on the fritz.

So if the options are a coffee shop with no seating, questionable Wi-Fi, or a slightly pricier guarantee of a seat and a treat, would more regulars be willing to cough up for a coffee shop subscription?

“I guess it’s like a gym? That’s not that weird,” said Kathryn Pedersen, a 28-year-old clinical psychology student who visits Pedestrian multiple times a week.

And then comes the math: “Right now I can spend under $10 when I come here and sit here for as long as I want to, if I find a seat,” Pedersen said. “How much more expensive would [the alternative] be? $20? I think it’s worth it.” That’s if she can afford it long term, she added.

Taylor himself has been running through a similar calculation—though for him, getting customers to accept a new model is more of an existential problem.

“It’s tricky avoiding giving off the impression that we’re being stingy,” Taylor said of his subscription idea, which he reiterated is still just an idea. “But the truth of the matter is our costs are really high and it’s just difficult to make it in retail these days. Survival is the game.”