How to solve the perennial problem of seat-hogging?

Students at the Starbucks cafe at Bishan Community Club on a weekday afternoon. Some eateries try subtle hints such as clearing the empty dishes or putting up signs discouraging seat-hogging during peak periods.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

On any weekday afternoon, seats at the Starbucks cafe at Bishan Community Club are occupied mainly by students, with papers and laptops strewn over the tables. They would study there for hours, depriving other dine-in customers of a table.

Many cafes and fast-food joints are still facing the issue of seat-hogging by students, despite years of measures to discourage them from doing so.

From hints such as clearing the empty dishes on their table to not-so-subtle requests for them to leave, eateries popular with students have taken various steps to deal with the phenomenon.

Starbucks and doughnut chain Krispy Kreme have signs saying that studying during peak hours is not allowed, while McDonald's has signs to remind students to be considerate to other customers.

At fast-food chain Carl's Jr, besides signs advising students not to study during peak hours, staff members would also "politely ask (them) to leave".

But they do not always comply, said operations manager Lisa Neo. "Forty per cent of our customers are students. Some of them take advantage of our free flow of drinks and hog seats for up to eight hours."

Ms Neo stressed that students are welcome to study on their premises during non-peak hours.

But when they linger during the peak periods of breakfast, lunch and dinner, it affects the eatery's bottom line.

"When they hog seats, fewer customers can dine in. We lose 10 per cent of our customers in this way; that's $100 a day," she explained.

At independent cafe Penny University in East Coast Road, service staff would clear the empty dishes of customers who stay for long periods, to encourage them to buy more food and beverages. During peak hours, seat-hoggers will be asked to occupy smaller tables.

When the cafe is not too busy, students are welcome to study there. Said cafe owner Fahmi Danielle, 26: "If it (seat-hogging) is within control, we don't usually shoo the customers away. We welcome students to study in our cafe because we want our cafe to feel homely."

Eateries have also turned to solutions that are more accommodating. Starbucks, McDonald's, Krispy Kreme and Burger King said seat-hoggers are encouraged to share space with other customers.

McDonald's even went to the extent of adding more tables.

"We value the importance of studying, and at the same time, we are conscious of the high volume of customer traffic in our restaurants during peak periods, which is why many of our restaurants have been re-modelled with increased seating capacity," said Mr Faz Hussen, McDonald's director of government relations and communications.

Not all eateries are able to do that, though, due to space constraints.

The problem has led to the emergence of cafes that cater to those who stay for long periods of time.

Coffeemin, for instance, charges $6 an hour, with free flow of snacks and drinks.

Its outlets in Suntec City and Clarke Quay have free Internet access, games, reading material and space for patrons to do their work.

Mr Jonathan Ye, 31, managing director of Coffeemin, said: "We let our customers pay according to the time they spend here, so that they can stay as long as they want without feeling pressured to leave."

Secondary 4 student Johannes Gan Dombrowski, 16, is open to the idea of such cafes. "It's a good idea, as I always have trouble finding seats at cafes," said the St Joseph's Institution student, who studies at the Starbucks outlets in Somerset.

For most students, however, such cafes are too expensive.

"If I study at a pay-per-hour cafe for three hours, I'd be spending $18, compared to just $6 for a drink at a regular cafe," said Ms Ada Quek, 18, who graduated recently from junior college. "That's not very sustainable for a student."

Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, said that being allowed to study at eateries for hours is a privilege that should not be abused.

"If the message (of not hogging) is conveyed in a courteous and polite way, I believe the students will understand and act in a similar manner," said Dr Wan.

"After all, kindness should be a collective effort from the community rather than select individuals."

This article was first published on June 02, 2016.
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