Culture

Coffee shop bans laptops and tablets, business grows

A Vermont bakery and coffee shop shuts off its Wi-Fi and discovers that people quite like it.

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The August First Bakery and Cafe is proud of its efforts to create a unique atmosphere in a desperately digital world. August First/Facebook

Very soon, we'll be wearing our laptops and tablets on our wrists, necks, and perhaps even noses.

In the meantime, their unwieldy and anti-social presence in public places tends to influence atmosphere and shut humans off one from another.

One small Vermont bakery and coffee shop, August First, wondered what would happen if it rendered them useless. So it decided to switch off its Wi-Fi, ban laptops and tablets, and prepare for the exodus of the connectedly addicted.

Jodi Whalen and Phil Merrick, the wife and husband who own the bakery, believed that people who hung out with their laptops spent less money and more time in their establishment.

As they told the Guardian: "When we were dreaming of what August First will be -- will it be this place with seven people staring at their screens? Or would it be a place where people come to see people they know, chitchat, laugh?"

They expected laughter? Had they not been to a coffee shop in the last 10 years? These aren't places for laughter. They exist for sales job interviews, Hollywood scriptwriting and the viewing of countless YouTube videos.

Whalen said that she was so nervous about the ban that a bald patch appeared on her head. However, after first instituting a three-hour hiatus at lunchtime, she discovered that the unconnectedness of her establishment was making more profits. She reports a year-on-year average 10 percent increase in sales, twice the previous increase.

On their Facebook page, the owners say they believe they succeeded because they went all the way: "Our story is getting attention because we've made our bakery a place where people can't use laptops and tablets, even without accessing the Internet."

Not everyone is delighted by the policy. "People are generally apologetic and respectful of our policy," Whalen told me. "Occasionally, and understandably, there are people who are disappointed and sometimes angry about the policy, mostly because their plans to work in our space have been thwarted. Fortunately, there's a lovely coffee shop just two blocks away that has plenty of space, Wi-Fi, and outlets. And fantastic coffee too."

Still, slip along to Yelp and you'll read reviews such as: "Their laptop free policy was somewhat haughtily announced to me by a staff member who insisted I pack it away. I felt like I was on an airliner."

Oh, but surely this reviewer at least had more legroom.

This view was countered, however, by another Yelper: "Kudos to August First for its policy of being a 'laptop and tablet free' bakery. My visit was part of my vacation and not being surrounded by the laptop army made my time all the more relaxing."

Once upon a time, certain Starbucks -- especially in New York -- thought they'd try a similar policy of moving the laptop loungers along by covering up power outlets.

Those days seem long gone. Perhaps Starbucks couldn't find a commercial justification and decided to make its coffee shops permanent hotspots for hipsters and hirers.

But for August First, putting humanity (I mean, profits) first appears to work.

I wondered though, whether larger phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note are banned too. After all, owners of these whip out their styluses and work away, don't they?

"We allow the use of smartphones, including the Samsung Galaxy Note. As time goes on, we know that we'll have to reassess our policy, based on how people are using new technology," Whalen told me. "But for now, the limit is with laptops and traditional tablets."

Updated at 7:17 a.m. PT September 8 with quotes from Jodi Whalen.