Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

The big tables in the cafe principle

Posted by shannonclark on October 22, 2009

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending Lunch For Good here in San Francisco, organized by my friend Chris Heuer, the lunch gathered around 50 people together for a tasty meal and serious conversation about how to inspire critical thinking.

At my table as part of our conversation I mentioned my “big tables” principle in evaluating cafes as part of our conversation about groups and spaces. At the table the pet owners were all sharing how much enjoyment they get from talking with fellow dog owners at dog parks. I mentioned that I could never even be in such a space, couldn’t ever own pets of any type.

If you are wonder, no I don’t hate animals, I’m just seriously allergic, so allergic that I stop breathing and have asthma attacks along with concurrent serious skin rashes, red eyes and stuffed sinuses. For a short time I can take some allergy medicines and endure brief exposure, but I refuse to take medicine every day of my life just to live with a pet – and furthermore such prolonged exposure to both the medicine (which does have very real side effects) and to the pet dander which has extreme impact on my well being is not conducive to my overall health.

My point in bringing this up is that while the interactions between pet owners are fantastic and it is great that such spaces spark interactions between folks who might not otherwise meet (though likely they share some common interests and traits since they have chosen to live in a near geographic area) such spaces are not, in fact, truly universal, there are folks, such as myself, who not only are unlikely to be at such a dog park my in fact be completely unable to enter such a space.

We then started talking about online spaces and communities and here I brought the discussion back to physical spaces. Cafes are often cited as spaces where strangers can meet, interact and get to know each other. However as a frequent cafe denizen (I’ve been working from cafes since the early 1990’s) I have observed that there are simple steps a cafe can do that dramatically change how the cafe functions as a social space.

Hence my “big tables” principle.

The bigger the tables in a cafe the more social interactions between strangers are likely.

My ideal cafe has tables big enough for two people to work on laptops comfortably while simultaneously having a plate of food, a coffee and some books or other materials open in front of them. Such large tables usually can readily accommodate more than two people and easily inspire ad hoc conversations and interactions between strangers – starting with the simple question ‘do you mind if I share your table” but often ending up with philosophical discussions.

Today, however, in the era when many folks, myself included as I write this post from a cafe in the West Portal seated on a couch (by myself)  frequently shut out the world via listening to headphones as we work, a cafe needs to take further steps to truly inspire people to converse with each other, to actually create a space where social interactions happen.

A few steps I have observed that help.

  1. Watching the volume of the music including any live performers to be quiet enough to enable comfortable conversations. A quiet cafe without any background music however isn’t ideal as people will turn to their own soundtracks. But a cafe with pounding music makes it hard to converse even with friends
  2. Regular events which help spark conversations and interactions. One cafe here in San Francisco (On the Corner) has a weekly games night sponsored by a nearby games shop. Such events give strangers a reason to do more than just talk in passing with each other. Other cafes have regular art openings, cuppings of coffee or other events which help inspire people to interact.
  3. Sociable staff. This is simple but friendly, sociable staff at a cafe will spark conversations with strangers and regulars alike (and help make strangers into regulars). In turn these conversations will then often offer reasons and entrypoints for strangers to interact with each other. Some cafes (and other spaces) take this to an extreme but generally speaking friendly, outgoing staff help create a space where people get a bit out of themselves and interact with others.
  4. Hours that encourage social interactions. Cafes that are open late inspire people (often but not always) to linger and hangout, to use the cafe as an alternative to other evening entertainment options such as bars or nightclubs. One of the more social cafes I have spent time in here in San Francisco is, in fact, a Starbucks. However it is also open 24hrs a day six days a week. Being located near to universities it is full of students studying and interacting with each other until the early hours of the morning.

What lessons can be drawn from such cafes (and other spaces) for online businesses seeking to spark conversations and interactions?

  1. The design details matter a great deal. Small, tiny tables in a cafe or a web design that emphasizes an individual experience will lead to individuals being alone in that space.
  2. Small gestures can inspire and spark interactions. Many of the cafes that most impress me, where I most quickly feel comfortable and at home are cafes where the staff take a simple step of learning my name from the first time I am there – and not just to call out my order but to greet me by name as they interact with me.
  3. Hours and patterns matter.Yes, the web is a global usually open 24hrs a day space but even online most successful communities and sites find rhythms and schedules to fall into. Here on my personal blog I fail in this regard, I do not post nearly enough. In contrast many of my favorite blogs have gotten into a pattern of one or more “open threads” posted every day specifically to create spaces for readers to converse with each other. These posts, in turn, supported by a regular pattern of other posts (the frequency and form of which differ by the blog). Cafes with short hours cater to one audience, cafes with longer hours open later reach a different group.

How do you judge a space? Whether online or offline what about a space inspires you to join it, to engage with the people who might share it with you?

4 Responses to “The big tables in the cafe principle”

  1. Cafe Maven said

    Dude, chunk it down. This is not a book. There are some good points in the post, but it’s waaaaayyyy too long to get through it all. You don’t have to explain how you arrive at your conclusions (allergies, no TV as a child, skipped a grade, blah, blah, blah). It seems like you have to back up your comments to prove they are correct. We don’t always need the context, just the idea. Good ideas transcend the reasons they were given life.

    Just summarize your thoughts and get on with your life. I’m sure you work, but it seems like you just attend conference after conference and hang out in cafes blogging with your laptop. Where’s the stuff about your income-generating work as a productive member of society? Does all this networking translate into growing your business or career? Is the ROI there?

    By the way, there is a lot of crap on TV, but there is also a treasure trove of good stuff. Audio+video is a powerful combination. Those who look down their noses at it are culture snobs of the worst kind.

    Abandoning TV altogether is sad. That’s like throwing out newspaper because you don’t like some of the articles. Or giving up on the web because there are many crappy sites on it.

    • Thanks for the comments – but a few reactions.

      1. This is my personal blog, I will write long posts – I’ll write short posts – depends on the topic. I don’t like to write in small chunks – not my comfort zone & honestly I’m not writing for everyone. And yes, I do care about explaining how I reached a conclusion – in general I almost always find how someone got somewhere more important and more informative than some statement just made as “fact” (or as their opinion w/o context)

      2. While I have talked about not having a TV growing up, nor owning one at the moment, I didn’t in this blog post so I’m not sure why you brought that up. Nor do I get where you get off telling me to “get on with my life” – especially since I don’t know who you are. Not sure if you noticed, but I haven’t been blogging here all that much. That said I don’t blog for an “ROI” – for that matter most of what I do (networking included) isn’t because of some “ROI” – not in my nature in the least in how I think about life, relationships, writing or in fact business. I look at long term value growth – but not short term, immediate “ROI”.

      and no, I’m not going to change.

      And yes, I know there are some great shows on TV – most of which I can and do watch via other means – I don’t “look down my nose at it” – I did grow up without it, I don’t currently one a TV now (occasionally miss it but increasingly don’t – Hulu etc offer many alternatives)

  2. Pat said

    Random thoughts in no particular order:

    1) make people face each other – minimize seating that does not face other seats.

    2) Make tables narrow – so there is no shouting across the tables or feeling like you are shouting.

    3) no bric-brac on the tables to disrupt eye-to-eye communication.

    4) no single tables — make a conscious decision to force interaction — if someone needs alone time they can be encouraged to go elsewhere.

    5) power plugs are only available at community tables — if you want power, if you want to be able to hang around for a while, then you have to contribute to the community. If you want to be alone then eventually your battery runs out and you leave (or rejoin society)

    6) post notices that people are expected to share tables.

    • Pat,

      Good suggestions – but I’m actually more in favor of large tables over skinny ones – and of a more hands off approach. Instead of signage or any force, I prefer cafes which are designed to accommodate a range of interactions – many spaces to be shared or for groups but also spaces in the cafe for quietly working or spending time with one other. In my mind the best cafes have such a range of space – and thus work for people in various moods & for a range of purposes (epicenter cafe in SOMA here in SF for example does this very well – large tables that are often shared incl a large communal table – but also functional window bar seating for when you are working alone (though it does also get shared by groups of people). Coffee Bar in Potrero does this very well as well.

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