As national news outlets have reported recently, many Vermonters are struggling with addiction to a powerful, mind-altering substance that has an increasingly visible public presence. No, not heroin — we're talking about the internet. And the latest war against its use is happening in a popular restaurant in Burlington.
Last month, August First Bakery & Café went "screen-free" — that is, customers are prohibited from using laptops or tablets. So noteworthy was the move that National Public Radio, among other media outlets, picked up on the story. Discussions on such online venues as Facebook and NPR's website ensued. But you can't read them at August First.
Actually, it's not the internet per se that's unwelcome at the South Champlain Street café; patrons are still permitted to use smaller internet-enabled devices such as smartphones. August First's co-owners, Jodi Whalen and Phil Merrick, have nothing against the internet or computers, they say. They give the prohibition a positive spin, saying they intend it to improve the ambience and culture of the restaurant.
Whalen, 46, and Merrick, 57, are married; they've owned and managed August First for a little more than five years. In that time, the eatery — whose garage-door front walls roll up in warm weather — has become a popular and convivial spot. Its screen-free policy officially went into effect on March 31 and was gently phased in over the ensuing couple of weeks.
In conversation, Whalen and Merrick come across as anything but authoritarian or stern. They seem to be happy people, and they aver that they're not out to make anyone else less happy. In fact, the two are pleased to have come up with a policy that, in their opinion, is good for their café's bottom line and ensures a nicer experience for their customers.
Have they seen the effects they hoped for? "Sales are up," says Merrick. He estimates he's seen a 15 percent increase since August First went screen-free. Merrick allows that a short trial period and recent media attention may have skewed that figure somewhat. Still, he and Whalen are confident they've made the right decision.
"Anecdotally," Whalen says, "what we've noticed [since the policy change] is a liveliness to the bakery that wasn't there before. When people are on their laptops, they're silent ... Now it feels more alive, because of all the conversation."
The policy change has a sound financial basis, suggest several coffee shop owners with whom Seven Days spoke. Customers who set up temporary "offices" in cafés with their portable devices tend to "squat" for long periods without purchasing much more than a cup of coffee.
August First had been on the road to screenlessness for a while. When it opened, the place offered free Wi-Fi, but the owners noticed a rise in the number of squatters. They dropped internet access during the lunch rush and saw their sales go up. The next step was to prohibit the use of electronic devices altogether during peak lunchtime hours. But that seemed like a half measure to the couple.
Whalen and Merrick considered enacting a "buy one item per hour" policy, but that would "require more policing," Whalen says. "There's something very uncomfortable about that. We were hoping that people would have the etiquette to see that other people wanted to sit here, too."
The last straw came a few months ago. August First's cash registers, which rely on an internet connection to work, ceased functioning one day for no discernible reason. Frantic calls to Burlington Telecom revealed no problems with the business' connectivity. Merrick and Whalen decided that the only fair thing to do for the duration of the outage was to give patrons their orders for free.
But two hours later, they discovered that a customer had unplugged the store's router so he could plug in his own laptop. Moreover, he became angry when the café's owners asked him to disconnect. "His laptop was more important than [our] running our business," says Merrick. "The selfishness!" Whalen adds. "It wasn't the computer. It was the behavior."
Whalen and Merrick acknowledge the arbitrariness of prohibiting laptops and tablets but not smartphones (though customers are still urged to limit phone conversations in the café). "It's the only enforceable boundary," Merrick says. "People are going to use their phones. You can't just eliminate technology — that wasn't our goal."
Merrick and Whalen know that smartphones can do most things that laptops and tablets can do, but small screens are less amenable to reading and writing. Even a web-surfing smartphone customer is less likely to spend all day doing so in the restaurant, the owners say.
"As phones turn into tablets, in a sense, we'll have to reevaluate if there's a problem," says Whalen. "Right now, there's not. If you were to sit here and use your phone, I doubt you'd be here for three hours. It's inconvenient for the user."
Ironically, there is a logical counterargument to the new policy within August First itself. Against the north wall stands a six-foot-tall bookshelf laden with reading material of all sorts. Weren't people losing themselves in books long before the first LOLcat rode an invisible bike?
"We've been asked, 'What if I come in and bring the Sunday New York Times and sit for three hours?'" says Whalen. Her response: "That would be fine. We're not extreme like that. It's almost like it's the keyboard that should be banned."
Is banishing certain digital devices even legal? Why should a restaurant be allowed to tell its customers how they can spend their time? Keep your righteousness in check: Whalen and Merrick are on legal terra firma.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the case isn't complicated. August First is a private business and can therefore enact any rule its owners wish about the behavior of their customers, provided those rules do not discriminate against anyone on the basis of race, gender, religion or the like. "The reason is that the Constitution protects us from actions by the government," Gilbert says. "A private company can do what it wants and can set restrictions like this."
The legal justification for such a rule is twofold, he says. First, no rights are being infringed to the detriment of any customer. If a customer wants to work on his or her laptop while sipping a hot cuppa, that customer can simply go elsewhere. Laptop use in cafés is not guaranteed by our nation's charter. Gilbert likens August First to a bus line that asks its passengers to refrain from making all but emergency cellphone calls.
Furthermore, Gilbert says, if you squat for hours at a table in a place of business, "You're not paying on a proportional basis for the space you're occupying." In other words, the longer you sit there without spending any money, the less valuable you become as a customer, because you are covering a dwindling portion of the business' overhead costs: rent, heat, water and the very internet access that you take for granted.
Going screen-free was a business decision, as Merrick and Whalen have said all along.
Other local businesses have taken different tacks. Muddy Waters, a coffee shop on Main Street in Burlington, does not offer Wi-Fi to its patrons, but neither does it ban any electronic devices.
Owner Mark MacKillop is out of town when Seven Days drops in, but barista Caroline Phillips, 25, who's worked at "Muddy's" for two years, confirms that there is neither a prohibition on devices nor a "buy something for every hour you're here" rule.
"I went to [the University of Vermont]," she says, "and I would come in here sometimes to write papers because it would keep me off of Wi-Fi. That's a great thing for focusing in and doing work, and people still come in here to do work."
On the day of this reporter's visit to Muddy Waters, patrons are fairly equally divided between conversationalists and laptoppers. Phillips says she doesn't see many patrons abusing the café's relative laxness on such matters.
Maglianero, a Maple Street coffee shop just around the corner from August First, offers free Wi-Fi to customers and has no official policies regarding squatters. Indeed, the furniture is arranged in a way that suggests a balance between work and conviviality. Maglianero has just a quartet of four-seat tables; the other 16 chairs are stools by the windows, where it's a little more difficult to set up a workstation. Outlets are scarce, too — a greater impediment to lengthy computer-based work than a lack of Wi-Fi.
Manager Corey Goldsmith, 28, says, "The space has lent itself to creating that balance. If you want to [use your laptop], it's totally fine, but the space is not set up so that it's catering to that." Maglianero can absorb any potential negative economic effects of squatters in part because most of its sales — Goldsmith estimates 60 to 70 percent — come from to-go or "quick turnaround" transactions.
But Maglianero's policies aren't based solely on the bottom line. "Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of telling customers what they can and can't do within this space," Goldsmith says. "There's a certain risk factor to that. It's a little bit less welcoming."
He's quick to point out, though, that no single policy makes sense for every business. "More power to [August First]," he says. "It's awesome that it's worked."
Goldsmith gets to the heart of the issue. "If [an eatery] offers table service, whether it's fine dining or not ... using a laptop in there doesn't make a lot of sense," he says. "Throw 'café' or 'bakery' into a name, and there's an automatic assumption: lots of seating and free Wi-Fi."
That may be exactly why patrons were squatting at August First: It's a pleasant place to plop down with a cup of coffee and get some work done. But the owners say that August First is a restaurant where people gather with friends to eat and converse. The presence of oblivious patrons taking up tables with their laptops makes it less sociable — and available.
"What it comes down to is this," Merrick says. "When a customer comes in here and they don't have a laptop, they contribute to the community just by being here."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Device-Free Dining"