Montreal

Table for one, plus laptop? Some cafés look for ways to curb patrons' screen time

Some Montreal cafés are introducing laptop-free zones or ditching Wi-Fi altogether, saying they don't want their cozy neighbourhood spot eerily quiet and awash in glowing screens.

Strategies to encourage conversation include ditching Wi-Fi, introducing laptop-free zones

Sarah Bogard works in coffee shops often and says she doesn't mind the laptop-free zone imposed by Café Pista from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)

It's a rainy April morning in Montreal, but Sarah Bogard has made the most of it.

Like dozens of other people in Beaubien Street's cozy Café Pista, she's set herself up in a corner, at work on her laptop with a piping hot cup of coffee at her side.

It may look like a writer's paradise, but that idyllic scene is interrupted at the stroke of 11 o'clock.

That's when Bogard's corner of the café​ turns into a no-laptop zone, and she scrambles to another table, juggling her coat, computer and cup of joe.

"You have to start looking 15 minutes early, and I got my spot stolen there by another girl that saw it. She decided to move five minutes before me, and I was like — dammit!" said Bogard, laughing.

Less screen time, more chatting

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, Café Pista declares nearly half of its seating area a laptop-free zone, although computers are still welcome in the rest of the establishment.

Pista one of many Montreal café​s and restaurants trying to curb patrons' screen time in a bid to encourage conversation, as well as table turnover.

For Pista's owner, Maxime Richard, it's also about creating a welcoming atmosphere.

Maxime Richard owns Café Pista, a Beaubien Street café that operates a laptop-free zone every day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. He says the zone is meant to encourage conversation among patrons. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)

Richard got the idea for a laptop-free zone when he walked into the café​ one day and found it too quiet. He worried it would be alienating to seniors and parents with young children who may make some noise. 

"The whole place was packed, but it was the classic 'one laptop, one table, one laptop, one table.' The vibe was quieter — more like a library vibe," said Richard.

Although many customers have told him they appreciate a screen-free coffee break, Richard's policy has ruffled some feathers since he devised it a little over a year ago. Recently, an upset customer left a Facebook review in which she complained about not being able to use her laptop.

"She felt that we were saying she would need to go elsewhere, but it was not the case. It was more, 'Stay with us, but leave your laptop [to the side],'" said Richard.

Natalie Van Westrenan, owner of Mile End's Cantine Brooklyn, stands at the counter in front of the eatery's 'Pas De Wi-Fi' sign. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)

Wi-Fi? How about No-Fi?

Some eateries are taking the concept of a laptop-free zone one step further and cutting out Internet access altogether.

"Pas De Wi-Fi," reads a neon green sign behind the counter at Cantine Brooklyn, a small restaurant in Mile End.

Despite the sign's eye-catching colours, not all clients clue in to the restaurant's policy right away, said owner Natalie Van Westrenan.

"When people ask me, 'What's the Wi-Fi [password]' and I jokingly point to the neon, I really do it in a laughing, cute manner, because they can be embarrassed they didn't see the whopping, huge neon," said Westrenan.

A laptop-free zone and the lack of Wi-Fi have preserved the intimacy of the small eatery, Westrenan said, helping turn over tables during Mile End's crucial lunch hour.

"We need the fast pace of turnover, or we won't even survive. We won't pay our rent with people having a sandwich and a tea for four hours on three of our 15 seats," said Westrenan.

Although some customers choose to have their coffee elsewhere once they find out about the lack of a free wireless network, Westrenan said many people are OK with spending some time away from their screens.

"It's a throwback to how I liked life better, before all this technology," said Westrenan. "To eat, you know, think of your mom, 'Sit down!'"

"It's like I'm your Italian mamma when you come here. 'Put it all off. Talk to us. How's your day? How's life?'" 

About the Author

Rebecca Ugolini

CBC Montreal radio producer

Rebecca Ugolini is a born-and-raised Montrealer who loves covering the city. Follow her on Twitter at @RebeccaUgolini.

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