Seat hogging at Starbucks: Students are not the only ones, say cafe owners

Customers studying in Starbucks' City Link Mall outlet on Oct 29, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Customers studying in Starbucks' City Link Mall outlet on Oct 29, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Students are not the only ones hogging seats at cafes, it seems, even though they have come under the spotlight following one such incident at Starbucks.

Cafe owners said they see a fair share of adults taking up their seats. They include teachers marking assignments, office workers holding meetings over a cuppa, and others who just want a quiet place to watch videos or use free Wi-Fi.

Teachers apparently mark their scripts at the very same outlets frequented by students. Cafe owners said it is common to see teachers marking scripts for hours on end.

Mr Vincent Chong, owner of cafe Artease in Serangoon Central, said that while some of them buy more drinks to justify the their time and space in the cafe, he has seen those who buy just one drink and stay for three or four hours. His 20-seater cafe has laminated notes on tables requesting students not to hog seats during peak hours, but it does not always work. Sometimes, he has to ask people to leave when the cafe gets crowded.

The phenomenon of hogging seats was thrown into the spotlight after Millennia Institute student Yap Huixin made a public complaint against the Starbucks staff who packed away her unattended belongings when she left the coffee chain for half an hour. Her complaint, posted on Starbucks Singapore's Facebook page on Oct 26, went viral, with most people backing Starbucks. She has apologised after she was counselled by the school.

Former teacher Kamala Malar, who is not a stranger to marking assignments and test papers at Starbucks, said that cafes are "socially comforting", because the environment "removes the pain" of work and study. "It's just a feel good thing. It's a happy place," she said. But the 30-year-old said she would only go to the quieter Starbucks outlets, and would leave once she sees a crowd.

Mr Chong, who has run the cafe for about a year, agreed that adults, as opposed to students, are more likely to be conscious of their surroundings, and leave when the cafe gets busy.

Some office workers also hold meetings over a cup of coffee and cake, said Ms Yvette Chua, owner of cafe Hatter Street in Hougang. While students still make up the bulk of her regulars, she also gets adults spending long hours at her cafe.

"The adults are more challenging to deal with. They know how to answer when our staff go round trying to make space for new customers," she said.

Hatter Street, which has a seating capacity of about 30, does not have any signs telling students not to study during peak hours. But its employees monitor the situation, and politely ask customers to leave when the cafe gets crowded.

While some cafes see seat hogging as a problem, family-run D'zerts Cafe in Bedok North calls out to students and adults to work and study there.

They even entice these potential customers with power points for their laptops and free Wi-Fi. One of the owners, who wanted to be known only as Mr Tay, said these customers mean good business. He said: "They come in the morning, they have a drink. Then they have lunch, and then dinner. We feed them the whole day."

Mcdonald's, a popular studying spot for students, has even redesigned many of its restaurants to cater to this group of customers, by making space for more tables and chairs.

Ms Carolyn Khiu, director of Corporate Communications at McDonald’s, said that many outlets have signs to "gently remind" students that while they may study, they need to be considerate to other customers during peak periods. Their peak periods are at all meal times.

"For example, if needed, we do ask students if they could share tables with customers," she said.

jalmsab@sph.com.sg