Sunday, July 14, 2013

How table squatters can ruin a perfect cup of coffee

Many of us have found ourselves in a crowded restaurant or fast-food establishment where there is self-seating. We find ourselves waiting in line, hoping that some of the occupied tables will become free by the time our order is complete.

Theoretically, if we and other patrons wait until we each get our food before occupying a table, then it's possible that the flow of traffic will be such that there will be enough available seating for everyone -- or at worst, a short wait for a spot to open up. 

But many of us have also found ourselves in these establishments witnessing customers grabbing empty tables as soon as they walk in and well before they order or pay for anything. 

These folks, writes T.D., a reader from Boston, Mass., are in the wrong ... or at least he believes them to be and he would like some validation.

He writes with (I hope) some exaggeration: "I'm desperate for an answer to this everyday dilemma. If I don't get an answer soon, there may be an incident."

What's eating at T.D. is whether or not it's acceptable to simply take an open table at a coffee shop before getting in line or purchasing something at the shop. "Isn't this action an outright affront to those waiting in line?" he asks.

To T.D.'s way of thinking, tables are for paying customers, or more specifically, customers who have already paid. "Regardless of their intent, I hold that people who have not yet ordered anything, much less paid for it cannot be considered customers."

He wants some validation.

"Taking a table in this manner is objectionable and should not be allowed by staff or true patrons," he writes. "Right?"

I agree with T.D. that custom at most self-seating restaurants would have it that you wait until you've placed your order and paid for it before claiming a spot at a table. It's certainly the courteous thing to do.

But there are times when it seems clear that it's simply impractical to engage in the customary practice. An adult with a half dozen or so toddlers or small children in tow, for example, might actually be doing other customers a favor by finding a place to seat the kids as soon as possible rather than have them scramble under foot. Few would find fault with allowing someone who is using a cane or walker to sit upon entering the establishment. It might be equally acceptable for a woman who is clearly pregnant to sit while a companion places their food or drink order.

But for most of us, if the custom is to order and pay and then find a place to sit, that custom should be honored. It's one of those times that how we decide to behave when we are together comes clearly into focus.

If that custom is not clear to other patrons, then the establishment's management might make it clear to patrons that the expectation is that they will order and pay before sitting down. Customers shouldn't be expected to confront one another with their disappointment in others' inability to show common courtesy.

Will the world come crushing down if we have to wait a bit longer because someone breaks custom? Not likely. But it would make T.D. happy to know that others show him the same courtesy he shows them when he wants to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of  The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apartis a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin

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(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

It sounds as though the custom at the particular establishment your writer mentions (I'm thinking Starbucks) is specifically NOT to necessarily wait to pay for a drink before sitting but that your reader is frustrated because, in his mind, it ought to be. The custom your reader mentions works well for Starbucks since not everyone has to be in line to order and given the limited seating, this leaves the rest of the group to forage for seats (which is much easier before one is toting drinks)
If your reader has let this disconnect of cultures frustrate him, then the proper thing to do is for him to mention it to the staff. If the staff then doesn't act, you've confirmed that the actions are consistent with the culture they've developed. Your option then is whether to continue to bring your business back.
I would counter that your reader is not necessarily entitled to immediate seating simply because he ordered something. Obviously those who got the seats got there before him and who is he to say that they aren't also paying customers who are equally or better entitled to the seats they are occupying? Check your prejudices before you judge others and if it offends you, take your latte to go.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Unknown said...

Hey J-
In a prepersonaltechnology world, the old system of waiting, paying, sitting, leaving used to work. But now establishments cater to people needing Wifi an often those customers stay far longer than it takes to guzzle a cup of coffee, chai, latte or any other beverage. Thus, the natural flow of coffee house life has been disrupted and as with our school systems running on the agrarian calendar, coffee house etiquette of old seems to not be relevant in a laptop world. The question however do we agree on a new procedure for resting our bodies while drinking or eating without ignoring the needs of others. This will probably be a highly disruptive adjustment in this 21st century. One thing that smartphones have done is to accentuate the insularity of personal time and space. Far too many people today are unaware of those they may walk into on the sidewalk, let alone those who may be waiting for a table or seat. Thus it is that people jump at the first seat they see rather than using the old style system. One benefit may be that the Thermos Company stock may rebound and everyone will go back to drinking their coffee that they made at home at their desks .

Mike Munhall