Most restaurants welcome 'lingerers,' hoping to gain repeat customers
A group of men who gathered Wednesday morning at The Coffee Tree Roasters in Fox Chapel consumed more than steaming, caffeinated beverages.
They also got their daily fix of discussions about current events, such as the search for missing Malaysian Flight 370, prospects for the University of Pittsburgh's basketball team in the NCAA tournament and the political turmoil in Ukraine.
The men — sometimes as many as 20 — meet in the coffee shop every morning for at least an hour and a half to chat, network and joke around before heading to work, and some even go on weekends.
“It's kind of a good way to start the day. We get a good laugh here,” said Bob Rogers, 68, a Fox Chapel resident who is considered the founder of the informal group.
The men are welcome, and a framed photo of four of them even sits on a shelf in the shop.
“It's like a backwards bar. … They have their drinks together and they sit and catch up,” said Amanda Paul, manager of the shop.
The issue of how long is too long for customers to sit in a restaurant has been brought to the forefront with publicized incidents of customers being asked to leave after allegedly overstaying their welcome.
In February, a McDonald's franchise asked an elderly couple to leave because, the restaurant said, they had stayed past a 30-minute seating limit. A McDonald's in Queens, N.Y., called police recently to remove a group of elderly men who stayed for hours daily — often arriving before 5 a.m. and staying until after dark.
The practice of “lingering” has come to be expected, however, at fast-casual restaurants, such as Panera Bread and quick-service places such as Starbucks. They and other higher-end coffee shops feature homey surroundings such as soft seating, fireplaces, earth tones, soothing music and free Wi-Fi, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant industry research firm. And lingerers are staying longer now than in the past, he said.
Coffee shops have become a “third place” where people gather, business experts say. The home is known as the first place, and work is the second.
Mt. Lebanon-based Orbis Caffe has plenty of seating, so lingerers don't prevent new customers from sitting down, said Grant Schutte, who owns the business with his wife, Sonja.
Turnover and profit margins are higher at corporate stores, which can afford to be more aggressive when it comes to customer visits than small businesses like Orbis, he said.
Also, Orbis considers itself to be a community resource, he said. For some people, coffee shops have become “proxy offices,” he said.
Still, when Orbis customers come in just to use the free Wi-Fi and don't buy anything, employees will let the visitors know that “this space is for customers,” he said.
“For us, it's more of a principle issue than a direct economic issue,” he said.
At Commonplace Coffee Co.'s Garfield location, customers who stay for long periods are welcome, said Morgan Stewart, co-trainer and barista.
“Most of the people buy like a couple of drinks and, because they come every day, I feel like they're more invested in us,” she said.
The shop employs practices to encourage visitors to think about buying something, such as requiring those who want to use the free Wi-Fi to ask employees for the password, she said.
“So people think about buying something, and we suggest that it's for customers only,” Stewart said.
Spending money shouldn't be an issue for people patronizing coffee shops, said Bob Elwood, 65, a Fox Chapel resident who was among the group of men gathered at Coffee Tree Roasters on Wednesday.
“It's not a nonprofit,” he said.
Coffee Tree Roasters, which has six locations, doesn't have limits on the duration of visits, but it asks people to share tables at its busiest location, in Shadyside, when it gets crowded, said Bill Swoope Jr., owner of the West Mifflin-based chain of shops.
Not only was Crazy Mocha, a Friendship-based coffee shop chain with 30 locations, founded to be a community gathering place, but its neighborhood stores stay open late, until 11 p.m., owner Ken Zeff said. Its Squirrel Hill store is getting some of the customers from two Squirrel Hill Starbucks that close earlier, at 9 p.m., he said.
“We built our stores for people to hang out and feel comfortable,” he said.
Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.