Tempest in a coffeepot

Daniel MacEachern
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Letter warns customers not to turn café into study hall; owner apologizes, serves up free coffee

The Coffee Matters café on Military Road has come under fire for giving a letter to certain patrons asking them to not use the shop as a study hall. The shop has now backtracked and offered students a free cup of coffee and slice of pie for a limited time. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

An aggressive letter from the manager of Coffee Matters on Military Road in St. John’s has the coffeshop in hot water with customers.

Outrage erupted from customers online — on Facebook and on Twitter — Thursday night after a customer posted a picture of a letter from the new manager, given to a few customers this week, warning them not to spread their books and computers around the shop.

“I want to remind you that as the new manager of Coffee Matters, I was hired to increase business and to endevour [sic] on major changes to our look, service and product,” reads the letter, printed in all capitals on orange paper. “Therefore I will personally monitor my café, especially at night to decrease the use of Coffee Matters for a study hall. We are in business to service customers and want to always offer them a seat to sit and enjoy our atmosphere. When you study or on [sic] the computer you loose [sic] track of time. Then customers come in and the place looks like the library. Books and computers spread everywhere. We are investing dollars in a new look and we will not allow this abuse of my café going forward. I appreciate your business, however respect me as a business man.”

The picture of the letter began circulating online, accompanied by criticism and threats to boycott the café. Drew Power, an English student at Memorial University and frequent customer, said he was surprised by the letter.

“I understand that it’s a business, and they want not to have someone sit there on a single coffee for five or six hours. That’s obviously not good for business,” he said. “But a lot of students and writers that I know go to coffeeshops because it’s somewhere out of their house where they’re not with their home distractions, where they can work, and they’re there three, four times a week and spend between $5 and $20 on a coffee and a snack or a sandwich or a meal or something.” Power said if he’s working in a coffee shop, he’s there usually for an hour or two, but never takes up space if he’s done spending and customers are waiting for seats.

“Most people do seem respectful of the fact that it’s a business and they’re not going to stay there for five or six hours if there’s people standing up with a coffee in their hand, looking around trying to find a seat,” he said. “Most students are respectful. Obviously there’s going to be a couple of students that might not pack up and leave, and that might be causing the problem, but the majority of students don’t really do that.”

Samuel Wilkes, the president of the local Creative Writing Society, sent a critical letter to Coffee Matters, saying that if the policy outlined in the letter continued, he and his group, which he said meets frequently in Coffee Matters, would relocate. He added that no one begrudges an establishment asking someone to move along if they’re taking up space that could be used by a paying customer.

“The problem is I’ve heard that a lot of their consumer base has been there, actively buying drinks, but at the sight of a laptop or a study book, textbook, the manager will come over and essentially kick them off.”

The reaction prompted Coffee Matters co-owner Earl Norman to apologize for the letter, which he said was overly aggressive and given out unauthorized by a new manager to three customers.

“I read that and I was equally appalled at the aggressive tone of the letter,” he said. “If I had seen that before that was presented to three of our customers, then I certainly would not have allowed it.”

Norman said, though, that Coffee Matters has a policy of an hour per table, and says the café has received complaints from customers unable to find a place to sit, and the response he’s heard after the note was made public hasn’t been entirely negative. About half of the feedback, he says, is from customers who agree with the intent of the letter itself, if not with its tone.

To make up for the letter, though, Norman — a full-time Memorial student himself — said Coffee Matters is offering a free coffee and a piece of “humble pie” — actually, coconut cream pie — to students for the next two weeks, pointing out the student discount and free wireless connection it offers should indicate the café isn’t anti-student.

“As owner of the company, (regardless) of how this was initiated, I assume full responsibility for any actions of my employees, and that’s part of our restitution, is to offer a free piece of pie and a coffee.”

Janet Butt, who runs a customer-service blog and Twitter account — ishopandtell.blogspot.com and @ishopandtell, respectively — said while the company’s sentiment may have been legitimate, the way it shared it with its customers was “a little over the top.” She added that the Coffee Matters offer of free coffee and pie is a nice gesture.

“It certainly can’t hurt,” she said, but added that with Coffee Matters’ proximity to the Sheraton Hotel, a lot of its customer base is likely one-time customers, for whom the letter doesn’t matter.

“I don’t mean to say that it doesn’t matter to them if students are able to go in there and hang out, because they have another client base that they can work with, but I have a feeling that this issue will probably just — I won’t say go away on its own, but yeah, that will help to make it go away. And in the end their greater clients being the businesspeople using the hotel are probably going to be the ones spreading the word about their business anyhow, so I don’t think they will be hurt the way that people online feel like they really would be by boycotting and things like that. But I do think it’s a nice gesture, and it’s nice that they want to make it right.”

Power said the offer is a good step if the coffeeshop is able to get the word out that the owners don’t condone what the manager did.

“If they make sure that (customers) know they handled this poorly, then I think they will definitely save a lot of face and not lose as many customers as they could,” he said.


Twitter: TelegramDaniel

Organizations: Creative Writing Society, Sheraton Hotel

Geographic location: Military Road

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Recent comments

  • louie
    March 15, 2012 - 17:43

    It IS true what the manager said in that letter - students do take over coffee shops and use them as a library after purchasing a single coffee. I hate going to a cafe for a bite to eat or a coffee with friends and having no place to sit because one student with a single coffee is taking up a 5 seat table while studying. Not fair to other customers or to the business.

  • Mo
    March 12, 2012 - 10:53

    The Co-owner immediately did the correct thing. A first class response to an embarrassing situation. Well Done Earl.

  • Don II
    March 11, 2012 - 11:45

    This story has brought to mind some pet peeves of mine which are slightly off the topic here. Nevertheless, I am always annoyed by people who cannot spell properly. Many of the new generation of so called business professionals cannot spell words correctly and have no idea how to construct and write a properly worded letter or memorandum. What are they teaching the new generation of business graduates in business school these days? Please refrain from spelling the word "lose" as "loose" as one word means to misplace something and not be able to find it and the other word means to release a restraint or that a bolt that is supposed to be tight is now loose . Please stop using the phrase "past history" when the "past" is history. Please don't refer to defrosting frozen things as "unthawing" because that means that the item will continue to freeze and be frozen. Please stop using the phrase "unloosen" to describe loosening a tight seal as the word "unloosen" means the item will continue to remain tightly sealed! Poor communication skills lead to misunderstandings and customer alienation which is always a serious problem for any business.

  • MEME
    March 10, 2012 - 16:48


    • Daniel MacEachern
      March 12, 2012 - 15:27

      Just to let everyone know, the previous comments weren't cut — this story got posted a second time. It was put up on the website on Friday afternoon, and then a separate posting put it up again on Saturday after the paper came out. All the comments on the original story are still here: http://bit.ly/xb3PCP

  • John Smith
    March 10, 2012 - 10:41

    I bet they dreamed the whole thing up themselves...look at all the free advertising they got...I had never heard of the place befor e this...

  • Carol Ann Rogers
    March 10, 2012 - 10:22

    Rumors circulated around the Coffee Shop circut in St. John's about a passive aggressive new manager at Coffee Matters who left notes for staff instead of speaking with them to resolve managerial issues. Many customers were present on different occasions when staff were not treated well, and many people because of disbelief, went there with regulars to see for themselves and now the situation has esclated to this..... Who hires a manager who does not know the very bacis of business communication? What were the striking creditials on this "managers" resume? Lets start with the bright colored paper, all caps correspondence, spelling errors, poor grammer and that's at first glance before the intended reader has read the insulting aggressive tone to the "managers" letter. Please reveal where this person recieved his training; I would like to ensure no one I know attends that College. Your letter stated the reason why you were hired... to increase sales...you now have to implement a give away campaign to fix your public hissy fit against regular customers. 1 coffee + 1 Free piece of humble pie = daily profits out the window. What a business man you are. Are you a Business Grad from (SYFC)Shoot Yourself in the Foot College. Since you caused the opposite result from the actual reason for being hired... why are you still employed at Coffee Matters? By your own statement, in your own bright colored all caps professional words, you were hired to increase profits. So, are the cost of humble pie coming out of your pay cheque? The rumors have been circulating for weeks about Coffee Matters. Who ever owns this coffee shop should listen to the rumbling of discontent, and exercise some business common sense. Hire professionals; that means with real degrees' or diplomas' maybe even ask to see a portifilo of previous successful work. Perhaps by viewing written programs that person may have already tried to implement on bright colored paper in all caps might have been a strong negative indicator that, they don't know what they are doing. The owner is at fault for hiring this person over the many local business graduates who applied for the position.

    • Brett
      March 11, 2012 - 08:41

      Don't know why my previous comment was cut... But basically - I think there are a lot of "freeloaders" at coffee matters. That's the nature of running a coffee shop. I would implement a pay service for internet access through bell/rogers etc... There is nothing wrong with asking customers who overstay their welcome if they are going to purchase something else or leave. A coffee shop is not a daycare for adults at the price of $3.99 + hst. Personally I always felt the notices of "1hr internet access" at coffee matters tacky. Charge for internet access, provide a code on every bill that gives 1hr worth of internet access complimentary. Most of all don't operate your business in a hypersensitive manner. Focus more on faster more efficient staff and expanding to new key locations. Look at it as starbucks or tim horton's would look at it. Not as if you can only have 1 coffee shop in town.

    • Ricky Martin
      March 11, 2012 - 14:04

      Dear Carol Ann: In your comment you mentioned the numerous spelling and grammatical errors in the letter produced by the coffee shop manager. You failed, however, to take the time to correct the litany of errors (starting with a spelling error in the very first sentence) in your own writing. What is it they say about people in glass houses? Keep on living la vida loca baby... Sincerely, Ricky