The etiquette of coffee shop lounging

Woman in cafe

Coffee shop lounging, wi-fi scrounging, e-freeloading. Whatever you wish to call it, what's the appropriate balance between taking advantage of free services and just taking advantage, asks Tom Heyden.

It's not just restricted to coffee shops. There's currently a pseudo-turf war in New York between McDonald's staff and a group of Korean senior citizens, who apparently spend all day sharing one portion of chips.

Online "coffee shop etiquette" guides almost unanimously advise buying one item an hour as a compromise.

But Heidi Kitson, who holds weekly office hours with her international students at a Starbucks in London, disagrees. "We're usually here from 10-5 and I feel like it's fair if I buy two drinks in that time. One in the morning and one in the afternoon." She insists on keeping her cups too - proof that she's spent money and has the right to be there.

"The guy's already been round to pick it up twice and I said 'Oh no, I'm still drinking', so I feel less like I'm squatting."

But owners also need to make money. Some entrepreneurs have even flipped the norm on its head. They offer free tea and coffee but instead you pay by the minute, as the Magazine's video showed on Thursday.

Restaurant critic Giles Coren thinks that could be a good development. "If I owned a coffee shop and people were loitering [without buying] I would throw them out and take great pleasure in doing so," he says.

Young or struggling professionals who need free internet access should use the library, he says. "People have forgotten that libraries exist. I have no idea why someone would want to go to a noisy coffee shop. The only difference is that you can buy a coffee, so if you're not doing that you should get out."

But Kitson chooses the lively cafe atmosphere precisely because she wants her international students to feel comfortable. And context is important, she says. She wouldn't work in a smaller cafe where she's hogging too much space. Plus it's an atmosphere that's been purposely cultivated - wi-fi, comfortable seats and music don't exactly scream "just a quick cuppa".

Although perhaps the person who just smuggled sushi into the Starbucks I'm in is going a bit far.

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