Watch the 1994 "Friends" pilot again sometime, the one where the babyfaced gang piles onto that overstuffed couch at their favorite coffeehouse as if they're at a sleepover. Other patrons of the fictional Central Perk chatted or read newspapers while waitresses poured refills from glass pots, no lattes or laptops in sight.
In those quaint days, we called coffee shops coffeehouses and treated them as such.
But cafes are re-evaluating their role as the neighborhood's de-facto living room after a racially charged arrest at a Philadelphia Starbucks this spring.
Starbucks responded to accusations of discrimination by welcoming guests to use its tables and restrooms, whether or not they made a purchase. While the policy got good press for the embattled multibillion-dollar company, it forced smaller, locally owned coffee shops to ask an uncomfortable question:
Are they going to be expected to do the same thing? If so, can they still keep the Wi-Fi on?
Greg Martin, owner of Urban Bean on Lake Street in Uptown Minneapolis, says, quite simply, no.
"I think it's over-the-top ridiculous for Starbucks to take this stance now, where anyone can just do whatever they want," Martin says. "We are not a public park. We are not a library. We are a business."
He believes coffee shops should be able to expect the same behaviors of their guests that restaurants do.
"If somebody walked into Mucci's Italian with a can of Chef Boyardee, what do you think [owner] Tim Niver would do to them?"
Still, Urban Bean, like other local coffee shops, has long been struggling to deal with nonpaying guests.
Martin says he has more empathy for those lacking financial means than those who can afford to make a purchase but still come into his shop toting a coffee from another establishment. (It happens more than you'd think.)
It often falls to the barista to discern each guest's situation, an aspect of the job that's as important as pulling a perfect shot of espresso, Martin explains.
If a regular stops in briefly to check e-mail without making a purchase, no big deal; if one member of a large group doesn't place an order, that's fine, too. Martin says he'd always prefer nonpaying guests simply approached the staff and explained the situation — my mom is getting her hair cut next door and I just wanted to use the Wi-Fi — instead of slipping into the shop, putting on a pair of headphones and trying to hide behind a laptop.
Alyssa Lundberg, director of retail operations for Spyhouse Coffee, which has five locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, also gets nonpaying guests on a frequent basis. The challenge, she says, is differentiating those intending to order who just haven't gotten around to it — for example, two old friends excitedly catching up, or someone nervously preparing for a job interview — from those with no intention of doing so.
Spyhouse encourages baristas to check in with nonpurchasers as part of making the rounds.
"We train our staff to go out in the cafe at all times throughout their shift and be touching the tables clearing dishes, making eye contact, tidying up," she says. "That's a perfect opportunity to stop at a table that hasn't ordered and say, 'Here's a menu.' Or 'We're behind the bar if you have any questions. Would you like to make a purchase?' And certainly can say, 'We do ask our customers to make a purchase; we do have limited seating.' "
Many coffee shop patrons understand that they're expected to make a purchase, especially if they hang around.
In the IDS Tower in downtown Minneapolis, Chavinda Munasinghe purchased a Starbucks coffee in the skyway and brought it downstairs to the Crystal Court — one of the city's few quasi-public spaces in a private building.
Munasinghe, who is looking for a job in electrical engineering, said he felt Starbucks' new policy was perhaps better in theory than practice.
"It's nice people can sit there and stay, but at the same time, I think people will take advantage of it," he said. He also expressed concern that Starbucks' already-busy cafes might become even more crowded.
"If it's packed all the time, if people are starting to live there, it will be annoying," he said. An influx of panhandlers asking for money or cigarettes "wouldn't create a relaxed environment."
The impact of Starbucks welcoming nonpaying guests, and its ripple effect on the indies, remains to be seen.
Martin predicts that it could bring him customers retreating from overcrowded Starbucks, but it could also magnify entitled attitudes from guests who feel they don't owe anything to a coffee shop for the hospitality it provides.
Regardless, he's resigned himself to dealing with squatters since he opened his first cafe in 1995: "It's part of the culture of the shop."