Tempest in a coffeepot

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

Daniel MacEachern dmaceachern@thetelegram.com
Published on March 9, 2012
Coffee Matters, in downtown St. John's, has come under fire for a letter handed out to a few customers. – Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

An aggressive letter from Coffee Matters’ manager 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 furor 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, irregardless 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.