Ask The Salty Waitress: How Do I Discourage Laptop Squatters At My Restaurant?

Hi Salty: I'm the owner of a sandwich shop that does good lunch business. Lately, I've noticed people camping out for a few hours with their laptops and external hard drives, using up our outlets, and just ordering a drink, no sandwich. We're not a coffee shop, our business requires a lot of turnover, so we're not exactly looking to be a communal place for people to hang. Do you have any tips on how I can discourage this sort of behavior while trying to keep that warm, inviting vibe?

Sincerely,Italian Special

Dear Special,

This is an issue for plenty of restaurants, and it's a tightrope act for owners. You want your business to be hospitable, but you don't want ice-tea-only campers to hog tables from other customers. It's easy to get up in arms about these campers, but you have to balance that with not becoming an asshole who scares people out of their restaurant. Optics matter, and no one feels very welcomed by a sign that reads "NO LAPTOPS DURING LUNCH."

So, let's look at alternatives.

You could do away with customer WiFi altogether, using a password-protected network for staff. But that's likely to bug some customers, and it's not going to stop people from working on laptops without the internet.

Or you could sign up for one of those time-restricted WiFi services (like GoGoGuest) that requires customers to enter a code for internet access every hour or so. I've seen this model at coffeeshops, and I feel like it's just making extra work for staff who have to hand out codes and basically turn into tech support for customers' internet issues. These services aren't free, either, so you'll have to do the math on whether the $40 per month (or thereabouts) is worth the added table turnover.

If you're dealing with just a handful of repeat offenders, that WiFi model wouldn't be worth it, and you might just be able to shoo them off gently. After the iced-tea camper's been there for an hour, swing by their table to ask—with a smile!—if they'd like to order anything else. Maybe the gentle nudging will get the point across. If it's just two or three people who are the repeat offenders, try explaining the situation to them politely: "I'm not asking you to leave, but our business depends on tables being open for people to eat their sandwiches. Would you mind ceding the table to a lunch customer when we get busy?"

But I've saved my best suggestion for last: Why not occupy some of the outlets with small lamps or fans? It's a subtle way of discouraging customers from using those outlets—you'd have to be pretty bold to just unplug lights to use your laptop—but it doesn't signal "HEY GET OFF MY LAWN" as strongly as a WiFi code or anti-laptop sign.

Whichever way you go, make sure that your "solution" doesn't do more harm than good to your shop's reputation.

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