Students hogging tables for hours has been a dilemma for cafes in Singapore for as long as I can remember. They occupy too much space for too long and spend too little to compensate for it.
A recent social media post had attracted a lot of buzz on social media last week after a Starbucks customer complained on the coffee chain’s Facebook page. The customer said she was asked to leave while she was in the midst of working on an assignment. She said she had been there “only less than an hour” and had not finished her drink.
Her post received backlash from netizens, many of whom told her off for studying at the cafe. The incident also revived discussions about students hogging tables, with many expressing anger and labelling it as an act of nuisance.
The furore reminded me of how my former colleagues and I had felt when we were working at Starbucks. I worked at an outlet of the coffee chain between 2007 and 2010, while I was still pursuing my studies. The cafe was located at one of the Changi Airport terminals, which generally has a peaceful ambience many students in Singapore can’t seem to resist. There’s air-conditioning, soothing music, coffees and cakes – what’s not to like?
Dealing with students
During my time at Starbucks, I enjoyed serving the customers, many of whom were tourists and had interesting stories to share. We even got to meet popular public figures, if we were lucky. But among all the different types of customers, students were the most frustrating.
It was daunting to see them strolling into the cafe with books and laptops. They would enter the premises, scan for power points and settle at the tables next to them. If it was a group, the students would join tables together and form a makeshift studying corner.
It was common for many of the studying customers to purchase Venti-sized Frappuccinos – typically mocha- or green tea-flavoured. Starbucks’ ice-blended drinks tend to take longer to finish, thus allowing customers to study at the tables for a longer time. Then again, it’s a drink, not a mark of ownership. While we respected a paying customer’s right to using a table, we hated that some would abuse this privilege.
While reminiscing about the old days with my former colleagues, one of them recounted, “I used to do the morning shifts and I would see students sitting at tables from 7am all the way to about 1pm. I’ll take note of them and see if their drinks have finished before I cajole them to go and take a break from studying and return when the cafe was less busy.”
Another former colleague said, “By right, we’re not allowed to chase the students away because of the whole Third Place experience the company is trying to create. But at the same time, the staff needs to be fair to all paying customers.” The Third Place experience refers to the idea of creating a “second home” for customers.
But cajoling didn’t work for me all the time. I’ve personally encountered stubborn students who would nod at my request to leave, only to continue studying after that. This situation would make it harder for me to convince other students to leave because they would then ask me why the rest get to stay. Soon enough, the cafe would turn into a “library” and become an eyesore for other customers hoping to sit down for a quick cup of coffee.
For some reason, it was more effective when other customers chased them away, and I remembered occasions when new customers would confront these students. But not all customers would do that – some expected the staff to chase the students away for them.
Many of the staff are students too
And then there was the problem of students leaving their items behind to go for long breaks that created another set of headaches for us.
“I would usually pack up their items and place them in the common area in the back store,” said a third former colleague. “It’s not right to leave your stuff lying around hogging the place, as the cafe is busy and other patrons need the space.”
I completely agreed with him. Thankfully, the airport had a general rule that does not allow bags to be left unattended. So I would use this as an excuse whenever I sensed a possibility that these students might file a complaint.
A majority of the staff at Starbucks are students too, and we understand our studying customers more than they think we do. When exams are around the corner, we all need a place to mug. And if there’s too much distraction at home, you need to get out.
However, apart from HDB void decks and common areas at community centres, I don’t see many public studying corners in Singapore. Back when I was a student, I remember that public libraries didn’t allow studying either – I was once chased out from the one at Pasir Ris.
So it’s ironic that local students – including me at the time – had to face this issue, especially when the country holds education in high regard.
My former colleagues and I understood this and were willing to accommodate the needs of studying customers during non-peak periods. Some of them even ended up becoming our friends, mostly because there was a mutual respect for their right to study as a paying customer and our right to help run a business.
If each student spends only $7 for every six hours of studying, imagine the number of such customers we would need to achieve a decent amount of sales within a shift.
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