Can snooty waiters save independent cafes from iPads and city planners?

I went to check out the newish Dwelltime Coffeebar and Bakeshop in the newly-hopping Broadway zone of mid-Cambridge.  Whilst enjoying an americano, smooth and served with a glass of water like they do in civilized nations, and a whole wheat bacon scallion scone, not too large, crisp and savory, all for a bit more than $5, I took notice of two notices.

First, the are going to turn off their wifi during lunch hours to reduce, well, dwell time, and to avoid becoming a co-working space.  Second, they have a petition going to get the Peoples' Republic City of Cambridge to allow them more than 20 seats, a number to which they are limited because they have no off-street parking.   Are these things related?

Item 2, crap anti-business elitist NIMBY zoning

There's a bus stop out front and the place is 4 blocks from the red line, but somehow the city thinks that the business needs to provide parking.  And the penalty for not providing parking is to be restricted to perhaps half the seating capacity it could serve.  Certainly the last thing I want in my precious Cambridge neighborhood is a cafe full of people.  Ugh, the thought of it.  I'm sure the only reason the neighbors tolerate that school across the street, teeming with germy children and no doubt swamped with SUVs at dropoff and pickup times, is some kind of grandfathering.  Awesome pro-business stance there, Cambridge.  An empty storefront across the street from a school is a much better idea.

Item 1, people who sit in a cafe all day

Before Dwelltime opened, I remember hearing a piece on the radio in which the owner talked about reducing the number of electrical outlets to prevent people from setting up camp all day.  I laughed.  Maybe that will slow down some people with crummy computers, but you can easily go four hours on a modern laptop, all day with an iPad, and as long as your supply holds out with an actual book.  So now they're throttling wifi to keep people moving?  Again, that'll hold off some people, but it won't hold off technological progress.  Tablets, phones and hotspot devices let you skip the cafe's wifi, as I am doing right now with a personal hotspot from my phone connecting me to a 4G data network.

It's a social, behavioral problem, and restricting the tech, even if it could really work, won't do the job.  High unemployment, scads of students, cheap technology, and a sense of entitlement will keep people camping out all day at cafes.

So, what to do?

Obviously the need to turn over the tables faster is exacerbated by having fewer tables than you might "naturally" have in the space.  At the same time, having people move through quicker would mean parking spaces would also turn over faster. Most of the parking nearby is resident or metered with a two hour limit.  If metered parking really worked, it would probably cut back a little on the all-day cafe types, but I'm guessing many of them are walking or taking transit.  I'll leave the zoning thing alone for now except to say that the city needs to price street parking appropriately and let the cafe live or die on its own merits. For the all-day cafe dwellers, I suggest...

A modest proposal: waiters

People sit in cafes all day because they can.  Passive-aggressive moves like restricting power outlets and internet won't cut it.  You need to make those people pay up or move on, and I think table service is the way to do it.  If I get a single coffee at the counter and hunker down for six hours, nobody's coming over and asking me to buy more stuff to earn the right to stay or telling me that another party is coming in and they need the table.  But that's exactly what waiters do in restaurants.  The better ones are less obviously obnoxious about it, but they all do it. "Anything else for you sir?"  Subtly-yet-pointedly leaving the bill.  You know the drill.

They way I see it, a skilled waiter or two could increase the average revenue per seat per hour and keep the malingerers moving along.  Plus, despite the best efforts of city planners, it would create another job, and it would make the cafe a bit safer by having another set of eyes on the floor.

Your mileage may vary, but if you're car-free in the area, you should drop by Dwelltime and sign their petition.

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  1. [...] you, I have not gone two years without a savory scone, that’s for sure.  My new local spot, Dwell Time in Cambridge, offers a nice scone selection, including more than one savory option!  At my first visit, I tried [...]
  2. [...] Dwelltime, not because I’m a pretentious euro-snob sipping my espresso, but in protest of the absurd edict of the cambridge city council about the number of seats allowed in this establishment. Then it occurred to me, standing up and [...]

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