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Cafe Etiquette – Table Hogs

There’s an interesting conundrum with café etiquette in the US.

In most US cafes, those I’ve been in anyway, the protocol is that you stand in line, order your drink, then find a table. This generally works well, is fair to everyone, and makes the most use of the available tables.

A problem comes with people who violate this bit of café etiquette. Who, in effect, break in line.

I wrote about the family hogging a table at Ess-A-Bagel in NYC. That was an amazingly egregious violation. A somewhat similar, though far less egregious violation happened to me yesterday morning.

The Story

I’d been standing in line about three or four minutes when a guy came in, looked around and then sat at an open table. Didn’t order anything, just sat there. A few minutes later I ordered my cappuccino and then looked around for a place to sit. With a dead laptop battery I needed a place with power which is limited to about a third of the tables in this café and rarely a problem. None were available and this guy was still sitting at one of them, doing nothing and without having ordered anything.

I asked if he was just waiting on someone, he was, and if I could get this table since I needed the power and he could get another table when one became available after his friend arrived and they’d ordered. He refused. His friend arrived 14 minutes later, they stood in line for 4 minutes, ordered, then sat down and he got out his laptop (He hadn’t gotten it out earlier because he thought she might want to sit outside if a table was available, which one was not). Overall he consumed this table for about 21 minutes that he didn’t really need it, didn’t use it except to hold it until his friend arrived and they ordered, and others could have used it. I ended up sharing a table with someone else which was fine (I actually do that fairly often in cafés) so not big deal.

While he was waiting in line another gal came by his now empty table looking for a place to sit and when she started to sit down someone told her that someone else was sitting there.

The Consequences

If everyone hogged a table before ordering, the available tablespace would be reduced, on average, by about 14%. If everyone did what the folks in Ess-A-Bagel did, tablespace would be reduced by over 50% and if everyone did what this guy did yesterday, space would be reduced by about 40%. Go in to a café with 30 tables and take out 5 to 15 of them – that is the impact of table hoggers.

We don’t need a table while we’re waiting in line (or while we’re twiddling our thumbs waiting on someone). It provides zero benefit to us but does remove a benefit from others.

If there are 10 tables in a café that is open for 10 hours, that makes 6,000 minutes of table time available. If the average person sits at a table for 60 minutes after ordering their drink that means the café can serve 100 people. Assuming a profit of $1 per person, that’s $100 in profit for the day.

Now, assume that people grab a table as soon as they come in, instead of waiting until after they’ve ordered. With a six minute wait we’ve now reduced the number of people the café can serve to 90 and reduced profits to $90, or 10% less than previous. Given the margins of a business like this that could be the difference in staying in business and not staying in business.

10% in our example or 14% in reality may not seem like much, but it is.

If you’re a customer, you’ve lost the use of the facilities the owner of the café has paid to make available to you.

If you’re the owner, you’ve lost revenue and profits from the facilities you’ve made available to your customers. And it’s not cheap for the owner to provide these facilities. The per square foot cost of space, heating/cooling for the space, insurance costs for the extra space, and employee time to clean up behind those who don’t clean up behind themselves all add up. Each two-person table costs the café owner about 90 cents per hour they are open for business. Doesn’t seem like much, but it is when you add up all of the tables and multiply that by 365 days in a year.

To serve that same 100 people in our example if people DO hog tables then the owner needs 10% more space. In real terms the owner will need 14% more space which in this case will be about $2,520 more. So in real terms table hoggers effectively cost the café owner $2,520. That’s not chump change.


Most of us, out of consideration for others, order our food and drinks and then find a table. Someone who arrived before us may grab a table we’d wanted (but they did get there before us after all), but usually another table will open up by the time we’re done ordering.

Fortunately it’s only a small minority who hog tables.

The Conundrum

Unfortunately, people like this guy yesterday make me want to forego consideration for others and plop my bag down at a table before I get in line.  I won’t though.


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