Laptop Backlash: Evicting the Techno-Squatters

Laptop Backlash: Evicting the Techno-Squatters

Family restaurant chain Bob Evans Farms’ new Xenia, OH (near Dayton) prototype is designed to give this old-school operation a contemporary look and feel. Which it does, up to and including free wireless Internet service, flat-screen tvs and the like. Cool ideas—unless you’re stuck in the lobby waiting for a table, a common happening at Bob Evans, particularly at breakfast. The last thing a busy restaurant needs is laptop-toting customers tying up tables. How does free WiFi fit in a busy full-service restaurant, where turning tables at prime meal times is paramount?

The 592 Bob Evans restaurants (current marketing theme: “The Home of Homestyle”) located across the country serve no-frills breakfasts, lunch and dinner. Both the menu and décor reflect the chain’s roots in a small Ohio farm town, and this approach has worked well for decades. Companywide revenue hovers around $1.75 billion, but growth has been hard to come by as of late. The company recognizes that it’s time to update its act. How? They’re not exactly sure, so that’s what the Xenia prototype is designed to find out. The idea is to trick out the new unit with a number of contemporary features to see how they play with Bob Evans’ older, conservative clientele.

These features range from peppy new uniforms, flexible dining spaces and a dedicated curbside carryout setup (“Carry Home Kitchen”) to hi-tech options like flat-screen televisions and wireless Internet connections. These latter two options are ideal if you want to encourage customers to linger, which we can’t figure out exactly why a busy operation like Bob Evans is interested in doing. But the chain is going all-in on the free WiFi, rolling it out chainwide as of late.

It’s forging ahead despite the fact that many coffeehouses have had it up to here with laptop users who tie up tables for hours, spending little money while they enjoy free electricity for their laptops and, often, free WiFi connections to power their Internet surfing activities. The problem has gotten worse because of the recession, which has created legions of out-of-work laptop owners who have plenty of time to kill. Laptop users were once seen as the kind of trend-setting tech hipsters you wanted to attract to your operation, especially because if they could afford a laptop, they probably had adequate personal income to buy food and drink. Nowadays, they’ve begun to be re-categorized as cheapskates who hog tables.

As a result, coffeehouse owners have begun to take action. Some are posting rules, with designated “no laptop” periods during busy times, and strictly enforcing these guidelines. Others have installed locking covers on electric outlets to discourage laptop use. Places that charge a fee for WiFi connections, on the other hand, don’t have a problem with it because laptop users are still creating revenue.

A big reason coffeehouse owners wanted to attract the laptop crowd in the first place was to make their businesses seem busy during slow periods. Other than their morning rush, there are lots of slow periods at most coffeehouses. Looking busy is not a problem for Bob Evans, where there are typically short wait lines at breakfast and lunch.

We look forward to seeing how well this chain can incorporate free WiFi into a full-service setting. Especially on maxed-out Saturday mornings, when the hungry throngs in the waiting area will be giving the evil eye to the laptop loners who won’t give up their tables.