Keep Cafe Patrons Interested: Add Alcohol to Your Menu

 Years ago, I had a New York City teacher friend who knew the perfect East Village bar for grading papers at 3:30 in the afternoon. As soon as she put her red pen away, she could reward herself right on the spot with something cold and refreshing. Teachers, freelancers, and aspiring novelists often have an eye out for a destination where they can get work done without all the distractions and temptations of home. When work needs to get done, it doesn’t matter what time or day of the week it is; sometimes it helps to have a pick-me-up like coffee to get through that pile of work – or, when the time is right, an adult beverage to transition out of a long day of putting your nose to the grindstone.

Cafes: Great Places to Read, Write, Have a Drink

Time flies when you’re fighting a deadline, and any cafe owner who serves the full range from espresso to beer and wine (and everything in between) can tell you they’ve had patrons spend entire days at their establishments. There are patrons who will stick around to order breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Stay anywhere long enough, after all, and you’re going to get hungry, so capitalizing on patrons’ needs partly means having a full range of tasty food options. Stay even longer than that, though, and some writers, teachers, and freelancers are frankly going to want a drink. Even Starbucks has caught on to what the masses want; the coffee giant recently rolled out its own evening alcohol program.

I used to be a regular at a spacious coffee spot in Brooklyn. This place featured free wi-fi, bagels, pastries, and every type of coffee drink anyone could ever want – as well as great lunches like tuna sandwiches served with mesclun salad, dinner options like vegetarian chili, and fresh juice concoctions for an afternoon pick-me-up. By a certain point in the evening, however, with progress still to be made on our laptops, what kept patrons like me around was that this cafe also offered a small selection of beer and wine.

No One Goes There Anymore. It’s Too Crowded”

Of course, wary of the possibility that patrons, when offered free wi-fi, might never, ever leave, some proprietors will post time limits for table use. Whether that’s a smart idea or a terrible one depends on your clientele. Do people come to your coffee shop to socialize with friends, or do they come to get out of the house or read the paper or get some work done? How many of each type of patron does your establishment attract and how often?

Unfortunately, I gave up on my favorite Brooklyn cafe years ago once it got so popular that there was never anywhere to sit. Could the problem have been avoided by a rule that made people surrender their tables after a certain amount of time?

That’s a tricky catch-22; if most of your potential patrons are coming in search of a place where they can sit for hours, ordering their fair share of everything from coffee to wine and everything in between, then your place might end up empty when word gets around that you chase customers away before their coffee mugs get cold. Loyal regulars who know they can linger may be a boon to your bottom line. On the other hand, some businesses thrive on constantly drawing in new patrons, which is impossible if the tables are always taken by the same cast of characters.

Here’s What to Do

Do some on-site research. If your cafe is consistently occupied by the same customers, sitting and working for hours and hours, they should certainly be paying for their spots by ordering more than just coffee. However, even if they are paying their way, there may be a problem if you notice other potential patrons taking a peek inside and leaving because it’s always too crowded. In that case, you may want to set some parameters.

If, on the other hand, your cafe is benefiting by being a place where patrons may sit, unrushed, and work on writing the next “great American novel,” etc., then by all means encourage your customers to stay past the traditional hours of “caffeination.” In that case, forget time limits, and make beer and wine an evening option. Your customers will toast you for it.

Josh Saunders