Dear Helena,

I often work on my laptop in a coffeehouse. I usually stay for three or four hours, and buy one latte. I feel like the barista starts giving me dirty looks after a while, like I should buy more stuff, or vacate my table for paying customers. Is there some kind of unspoken contract that you can’t work on your laptop in a café without ordering something every few hours? —Gotta Get Out of the House

Dear Gotta Get Out of the House,

Laptop users often are not big spenders, says Megan Lyall∗, a barista at an independent coffeehouse in Hollywood. “They get one small coffee and stay for five hours and then don’t tip. … Sometimes two people working together buy only one Diet Coke between them.”

Some coffeehouse owners are over it, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. These businesses are limiting the hours when laptops may be used or shutting off the Wi-Fi during lunch. But laptop users are also repeat customers, the core of any business. Consequently, the coffeehouse owners I spoke to said that these customers are only a bother when they’re taking up tables needed for those who are buying food and drink. In that case, the owners may ask you to share a two-top, and they expect you to agree. Basquali (he has one name only, like Cher), owner of Smooch in Brooklyn, says: “People are fine with it. I usually ask my regulars. A couple of people have been offended and my attitude is … I don’t want you to ever come back to my café again.”

So if you notice the place is jammed and people are hunting for a table, it’s good etiquette to offer to pair up with another solo customer, before a staff member has to ask. As to how often you need to order something, the baristas and managers I spoke to said that buying a fresh drink every three hours or so is acceptable. However, “refills don’t count,” says Scott Walker, a barista at Coffee Bar in San Francisco, “because they only cost 50 cents.” As for feeling the need to subsidize the cost of the Wi-Fi itself, know that it isn’t actually that big of an expense, about $135 a month, Basquali says.

Then there is the question of ambiance. When Four Barrel Coffee opened last year in San Francisco, it didn’t offer outlets or Wi-Fi, going purposefully for a more old-fashioned atmosphere complete with a vintage hi-fi playing vinyl, animal heads on the walls, and a chandelier in the bathroom. If you’re slaving over a PowerPoint presentation in the corner, you are not creating a Rive Gauche–like ambiance. But not all café owners feel laptops hurt their vibe. Basquali says: “I have music playing all the time … it doesn’t feel like Kinko’s.”

So refresh your latte and share your table during peak hours. Otherwise, linger as long as you like, and buy something small every three hours. If the coffeehouse owner resents you working on your novel, he has an easy option: get rid of Wi-Fi. People can go for hours without food and drink, but no one can last long without an Internet connection.

∗Lyall asked that her real name and place of work not be used, for fear of alienating customers.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.

See more articles