I'm writing this from a café where I've been sitting for hours. I've got an ancient bagel crust and a mostly-empty cup of coffee that's colder than Lebron's greedy little heart. And I'm not leaving anytime soon. Is that appropriate?
I'm no freeloading jerk. I paid to use this Wi-Fi, so I'm going to camp here like a neckbeard in the opening day line for Star Wars Episode Motherfucking Seven. And if you don't dig that, Mr. Manager, you can refund the $9.99 I paid T-Mobile for the hotspot; I'll just use your toilet one more time and be on my damn way. Easy call.
When I pay to use Wi-Fi, I'm going to use it for as long I want—or until my 24 hours runs out, whichever comes first. If you have to give up your credit card number to get a Wi-Fi signal, you should feel free to sit there as long as you want. You've paid your rent. It doesn't matter if the place is full. Keep your seat.
But it gets tricky when a place has free Wi-Fi. What's my obligation then? Sure I know I should buy something. But what, and how much? It's actually a pretty easy. You just need to consider how much a business makes on a cup of coffee.
But first, let's get this out of the way: Working in a café sucks. People are always peeping at your screen and it's dirty and the wireless is dodgy and there's some skank with a productive cough one table over who keeps yapping loudly on her cell phone to somebody named Andréas who you're pretty sure is her ecstasy dealer and you have to pee and you can't get up because somebody will steal your laptop and the bathroom is fucking rank anyway because it's a coffee shop and everybody's poopin' and, oh! I really, really need an office!
But that's not happening. So here I am in a café. Maybe you too. We have to suffer through this together, and quite frankly, we want to make sure that cafés keep on providing us with free Wi-Fi so we can continue to grudgingly work in them. And the best way to do that is to make sure you're a profitable user. So what does that require?
At a big chain, the profit margin on a single cup of coffee can be pretty high—at Dunkin' Donuts, for example, it's estimated to be as much as 95 percent. Starbucks, meanwhile, has a gross profit margin of nearly 60 percent (which takes much more than a cup of coffee or even just the store itself into account). They give you Wi-Fi as a way to keep you in there buying drinks.
While smaller, locally owned cafés (obviously) don't publish their financials, roughly speaking you can expect a return of about 70 to 80 percent on a cup of coffee or latté. That doesn't factor in other expenses the shop has, like rent and insurance and payroll. And a high-end cafe with great beans and skilled baristas will, oddly, often earn less overall than the place on the corner with the airpot full of hour-old brew that tastes like santorum. But still. They make money when people buy coffee, or they go out of business.
So here's how to pay your rent in beverages and snacks: First, calculate it by supply and demand; then, keep track of what you've bought based on that rough sketch of profits.
If there are plenty of seats, then demand is low. feel free to camp for a while. That Wi-Fi is running anyway, and you're helping them pay for it with every purchase. Just clean up after yourself, and try not to make a mess that adds to labor costs.
If the place is hopping, on the other hand, and people are standing around waiting on chairs, demand is high; don't let your cup sit empty. You should always have a recently-purchased drink or snack on your table to justify keeping other customers from taking up residence. That is, at least, up to a point.
Once I've spent $15 or more at a cafe, I can reasonably expect that the owners have made a $10 profit. That is about what I'd pay for 24 hours of Internet access many places, so I feel like I'm good. I've paid for my Wi-Fi, and I'm not leaving.
Now can you please watch my laptop for just a minute? I've desperately gotta pee.
You can keep up with Mat Honan, the author of this post, on Twitter or Facebook.