From The Straits Times archives: Pay for coffee by the minute

A new cafe here charges customers for the time they spend there, instead of the food and drinks they consume

SINGAPORE - The incident over a student's complaint against Starbucks coffee chain for removing her things while she was away from the outlet has sparked a debate over the issue of seat-hogging.

In a Straits Times online poll, 96 per cent of more than 11,000 respondents agreed with Starbucks' action. Readers also voiced their frustrations over the phenomenon of students hogging seats at cafes for hours on end to study, even during peak business hours.

We look at this report from Seow Bei Yi in The Straits Times archives to see how one cafe here is adopting a creative approach to resolving this problem - by charging customers according to the time spent there, rather than the food and drinks they consume. Some readers wrote in to support the idea, saying it is a good way to deter seat-hoggers.

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on May 25, 2014.

Buying a cuppa and trying to nurse it for as long as possible might be a thing of the past with Coffeemin, a new cafe opening today at The Central mall in Clarke Quay.

Calling itself a treehouse for adults, it charges customers for the time they spend there, instead of just food and drinks - a nifty solution to many an F&B owner's woes about one-drink customers who just will not leave.

At Coffeemin, customers pay $6 to stay for the first hour and $1 for every 10 minutes after that.

The cafe is open daily from 11am to 10pm daily and $30 lets you stay there the whole day. There is free refillable Arabica coffee from a machine, as well as complimentary cookies and Wi-Fi. Customers are allowed to bring their own meals as well.

Co-owner Jonathan Ye was on holiday in New Zealand earlier this year when he was asked to leave a restaurant after finishing his meal. He was determined to create a space that people could treat as their "home away from home".

He put together the Coffeemin concept in two months and started the business with 10 friends, investing a total of $250,000 in it so far.

Mr Ye, 30, says of his new venture: "Customers will no longer feel the pressure to leave or make unwanted purchases if they just want to hang around."

He is also co-owner of puzzle room company Lockdown Singapore, located in The Central as well. He says that Coffeemin is an extension of the Lockdown Singapore experience, where friends can chat and relax after successfully finding clues and "escaping" from the locked rooms.

He says: "Coffeemin is a social project for us also. We are trying to create a communal place."

The co-owners were inspired by a cafe chain, Ziferblat (meaning "clock face" in Russian), which opened in 2011 and has nine outlets in Russia. Last December, a London branch opened, where customers pay £1.80 (S$3.80) an hour for unlimited coffee, snacks and Wi-Fi.

That business model may well be a solution to something that plagues small cafes in Singapore - customers buying a single item and then occupying a table for hours.

This is sometimes a problem at Lola's Cafe, a 30- seat hangout near Kovan MRT station.

"If we do get such patrons hogging the tables, other customers can end up waiting in the queue for a long time," says Ms June Tan, 25, a partner at the popular cafe. It is often packed on weekends, with people lingering at the entrance, waiting for a table.

It is to deter such overstayers that the cafe does not offer free Wi-Fi, she adds, so that these people will find other places to do their work instead.

Department Of Caffeine, another popular hangout in Duxton Road, experiences such situations as well. But it finds the situation manageable as people who do their work there in the morning mostly leave when the lunch crowd arrives.

Its owner, Mr Andrew Lek, 36, says the time-based cafe concept is interesting, but might not be feasible for a business as customers might not want to pay.

Paying by time could translate into a fair bit of money for customers, he says, adding: "If it's a place that has extra services and features, maybe it would work out."

While cafe lovers think a place such as Coffeemin is a good idea, they hope that it would not attract people for the wrong reasons.

Referring to how people might refuse to budge just to get value for their money, undergraduate Ow Yong Hui Min says: "If they charge a standard fee for an unlimited time, there might be people who will exploit the system." The 22-year-old enjoys hanging out with her friends at cafes.

Coffeemin staff will record customers' check-in time on a receipt with a code that is scanned before payment, to keep track of the duration of their visit. This is to avoid confusion when it comes to the bill.

Still, account executive Sharon Ng says such a place could be good for relaxing. She frequents cafes once or twice a month with her friends.

The 24-year-old says Coffeemin could be pricey for students looking for a place to study. She adds: "Having to pay for the extra hours might deter people from staying longer."

For now, Coffemin's 1,000 sq ft store can accommodate about 60 people. It has eclectic decor, with sofas and a pool table.

Mr Ye plans to open a second outlet in Suntec City late next month and more outlets around the island if response is good. Each one will have a different theme.

He hopes that the space can eventually be adopted by communities such as interest groups. "Wherever it goes from there, we hope people will be able to sustain the community."

Readers' response: Pay-by-minute a good idea to deter seat-hoggers

I refer to the report Pay For Coffee By The Minute (SundayLife!, May 25).

The pay-by-minute concept at Coffeemin would appeal to the younger crowd as they need the space to study and hang out with friends.

Both the food and facilities must be worth the money if a per-minute charge is levied. These features will decide if consumers want to fork out the cash to stay.

There should be different prices for students and adults, so such a cafe remains affordable for a wider range of people. To avoid people from exploiting the system, there should be a limit on the time that people can use facilities such as the pool table.

However, if the place gets too crowded, the owners might want to temporarily suspend the stay-all-day price option. It is only fair to other patrons that they get a chance to try out this new concept.

Coffeemin could be a strong social enterprise. Perhaps meeting rooms could be built, if space is not an issue, for groups to use for discussion and community-building.

Darren Chan Keng Leong

All businesses, if they are smart, should carry out the practice of politely inviting customers to make another purchase should they still want to hog the seats after a reasonable time.

Businesses should not perpetuate such undesirable behaviour with silence and inaction.

But turning the bad habits of inconsiderate students who do not vacate their seats after eating into a business opportunity is not a bad idea.

Students who just stretch their hands out for money will easily splurge on such services if they prefer to study at such places and not the library.

Lin Ein

Excellent idea.

It is very irritating to see students occupying a coffee outlet for hours like it is their school library, while others are trying to get a seat just to have a quick refreshment.

Cups should have the time of purchase stamped on them, so there is a limited time for customers to finish their drinks and vacate the tables.

Ben Lee

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