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Café Etiquette: Holding Tables

Had an interesting experience in New York this past weekend. Went to a place called Ess-A-Bagel, somewhere about 50th and 3rd. Long line of people – not unusual for a New York bagel place. The 4 of us got in line, ordered, got our food, paid, and then went to sit down.

They have about15 small tables (30” round?) and maybe 45 chairs. 3 tables and 6 chairs were being held by a man and his 2 kids – one at each table. His wife and other 2 kids were in the back of the line – about 20 minutes or more from ordering. All other tables were full of people who had their food. I asked, nicely, if we could use one of the tables and 4 of the chairs. Dad said no “We’re holding them.”

We looked around – no other place to sit with our trays of food. Stood for a couple of minutes then asked a second time. He again said no. I looked around and nobody else appeared to be near finished. Only other potential was 1 guy with coffee sitting at a table with 2 empty chairs. I told the dad holding the 3 tables that they shouldn’t hog a bunch of tables when they hadn’t yet gotten their food (I was losing my nice). At this his wife stepped out of line and berated me. I responded that common courtesy is to get your food first and then get a table. A couple of guys in line behind her yelled at me. My son wisely stepped in at this point and told me to just ignore them.

While we stood waiting for another table to finish the cashier cleared some loaves of bread off a table and gave us 2 chairs. I was able to get another chair so 3 sat and 1 stood. BTW, this wouldn’t have bothered me if the place were full of people who were eating – that’s life. It was that I stood while this guy and his two kids sat with no food in 3 chairs and held 3 empty chairs and tables when they didn’t yet need them.

When we were done and headed out the dad and his kids were still sitting there holding the tables and empty chairs, and still without any food. Mom and other 2 kids were still waiting on their food. Interestingly my son noted that the 2 guys behind the mother who’d yelled at me had joined the coffee drinker who, when they came in, had purchased a coffee quickly so he could grab a table and hold it for his 2 buddies. No wonder they were so sensitive over the issue.


Holding tables is like breaking in line. The line in self-serve cafés goes something like; order, get food, pay, get table. Or sometimes; order, pay, get table, food delivered to table.

Tables have time value. During the time that the dad was holding the tables with his kids waiting on his wife to order and bring their food, 6 to 12 other people could have used those tables*. And while they wait in line other tables will free up for them to use.

On average, if people hold tables like this a café needs 30% to 90% more tables (and thus expensive space) to accommodate the same number of people as they will if nobody holds tables.

Hogging a table before getting your food isn’t fair to those who arrived before you and have already waited in line and gotten their food. Most people understand this and are courteous enough to not hold tables in a busy place. Unfortunately the number of people who lack common regard for others seems to be growing. More and more cafés are having to put in signs about common decency such as “Do NOT get your table until you’ve ordered and paid for your food.”

Ess-A-Bagel should do the same for the few inconsiderate folks who want to hog tables.

Café Etiquette:

If a café is crowded, order and pay for your food BEFORE grabbing a table. This allows others who arrived before you and already have their food to use the table.

Conclusion of the story… As we were leaving my son hung back a bit and apologized for our yelling at them. He said that they were wrong for hogging the tables when they didn’t have food, but that didn’t make it right for us to yell at them. Ah, nothing like learning maturity from your kid (though I’m quite proud to!)  He also noted that the guys kids seemed quite embarrassed by the whole thing.

* Let’s do some math. Assuming 3 people per table, the 15 tables in Ess-A-Bagel can accommodate 45 people for an hour each, 90 people for 30 minutes each, or 135 people for 20 minutes each. If it takes 20 minutes to get your food and 20 minutes to eat, then twice as many people can eat sitting down if nobody holds tables as can if people like this man hold tables while waiting on someone else to order and bring their food.

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