For as long as I’ve been in Brighton, I’ve lived within spitting distance of a café which I shall henceforth call “the Haven”. The Haven is a cozy little independent establishment that has been part of the Brighton café scene for over a decade. It was strictly vegetarian and vegan until a few years ago, when it started serving fish as well. But despite the presence of dead animals on the menu, the Haven retains a resolutely right-on, hippy-ish feeling. Colorful, faux-Indian aesthetic? Check. Funky local art on the walls? Check. Flyers for yoga, Reiki and crystal healing on the windowsill? Check again.
The food I’ve eaten at the Haven has varied in quality from very yummy indeed to dull as dishwater. But the café does consistently tasty cakes, nice smoothies, and good coffee and tea, which makes it a big draw in the afternoon. It also stays open late serving beer and wine, and it’s been non-smoking for several years, so it’s a good place to go for a laid-back drink in the evenings as well. To top it all off, it has WiFi. So, on the surface, it would seem to be the ideal place to while away a few calm hours with a book, a newspaper or a little Internet action. A “haven” indeed.
But as it turns out, it’s not really meant to be a haven at all, because beneath its “come one, come all” vibe and its “linger over a cup of tea” atmosphere, there is a cold, hard bottom line in the form of a manager who is intent on discouraging lingering at all costs.
It all started with the WiFi, really. There are numerous establishments with free WiFi in Brighton, which is great. Unfortunately, most of these establishments are pubs - and in England, pubs mean smoking. So when the Haven got WiFi, it seemed like the answer to a laptop-toting non-smoker’s prayers.
However, the WiFi network is encrypted. Jeremy and a friend of ours had the opportunity to question the manager about the WiFi situation, and she was adamant that she didn’t want people hanging around the cafe with computers and nursing one cup of coffee for an hour (because this is apparently somehow different than sitting around with a free local newspaper and nursing one cup of coffee for an hour, or sitting around discussing your aura and nursing one cup of coffee for an hour). As it turns out, the computers aren’t the real issue - it’s the “one cup of coffee” thing. Apparently, a café is not the place you go to sit and have a cup of coffee and nothing else. Who knew?
When it was pointed out to the manager that, in an otherwise empty café, it doesn’t really matter whether a cup of coffee is downed in five minutes or nursed over the course of an hour, because it’s still another cup of coffee sold, she relented and disclosed the password so that we could use the WiFi. I thought that was pretty generous of her, as far as it went, though her attitude towards customers - get ‘em in, get ‘em to buy stuff, and get ‘em out again as fast as possible - was more than a little off-putting to me, not to mention more than a little hypocritical considering the whole “we’re a haven” thing. I mean, I understand that if you’re running a business, you have a bottom line. But geez: it’s a hippy café, not a McDonald’s.
Anyway, the knowledge that you’re not really welcome at the Haven unless you order food and don’t linger has kept me from going there as often as I might have otherwise. But the other day I was desperate. The neighbors were having some sort of very noisy construction done, which made it impossible to concentrate and was driving me absolutely nuts; I needed an Internet connection so I could email off the tons of work I had to do; the weather was miserable, so I didn’t want to venture too far afield; and since I was still getting over a cold, the last thing I wanted to do was sit in a smoky pub, WiFi or no. As a last resort, I decided to nip to the Haven for an hour or so to see what I could get done.
I had just eaten lunch and had a huge latte, so I passed up the cakes at the Haven and ordered only a big mug of tea. For the roughly 45 minutes I spent there, it really did feel like a Haven: my tea was nice and hot, the café was quiet (all but empty, in fact) and I was getting lots of work done. The manager was scuttling around the place, as she is wont to do, and though she clearly saw me sitting there with my laptop and my single cup of tea, she didn’t express any obvious displeasure.
Not to my face, anyway. But it wasn’t long before I heard her speaking loudly with some people sitting at a table not far behind me. She was apparently explaining what it took to work as a server at the Haven (the emphasis here is hers, not mine - the capitalized words are the ones she shouted through the cafe): you have to be a bit like a maitre d’, you have to WELCOME people with a big HELLO when they walk in, you have to get them to buy FOOD, you have to be on your toes and move through the cafe to see how people are getting on, you should clean up around them when it looks like they’re finished, and if you see someone just SITTING there with a CUP of TEA and not EATING anything, then you need to see if you can get them something else or get them to finish up.
Now. I do not honestly know if the tea thing was directed at me. It was the loudest bit of her whole spiel - certainly loud enough for me and the very few other people in the café to hear her - but when I whipped my head around in shock to look at her, she wasn’t looking back at me, so maybe I’m being paranoid. But as Jeremy pointed out, regardless of whether she was referring directly to me or not, the fact is that the manager of an establishment was being loud and crass in the presence of customers, which is unpleasant and unprofessional. And of course, on some level she was referring to me, because I was sitting there with a cup of tea and nothing else.
Needless to say, I did not sit there for very much longer. And it remains to be seen if I ever bother going there again. It’s just ridiculous: I’ve spent more money on food and drinks in the Haven than I care to think about. I’ve brought family and friends from around the world there, and I’ve recommended it to friends from Brighton. I’ve attended concerts there - heck, I’ve played concerts there. Basically, I’ve always considered it to be one of the nicest cafés in town. But Jeremy’s conversation with the manager, coupled with interviews I’ve since read with the manager in which she gripes about one-cup-of-coffee drinkers, coupled with the scene from the other day have all left a very bad taste in my mouth - and it’s not from the one cup of coffee. Basically, I departed the café feeling upset and insulted, and I’m not very anxious to go back.
So much for the right-on hippy café, I guess. From now on, I’ll go down the street to the huge multinational chain that is Starbucks. The WiFi isn’t free and the cakes aren’t as good, but I know I can sit there as long as I damn well please without being made to feel like a waste of space. And their eggnog lattes kick butt.