The sign on the door could not be clearer: “This is a laptop-free zone.” The message is underscored by a cartoon computer with a sad face – and another sign indicating there is no wifi inside.
Welcome to Dough Lover, the latest addition to Brighton’s ever-expanding roster of coffee shops – and the most upfront example yet of the growing pushback in this tech-loving city against the legion of freelance workers (me included) who much prefer to work in cafes than in their own front rooms.
Apparently, Brightonians drink more coffee per head than the denizens of anywhere else in the UK, while the city also has more “high-growth tech companies” than Cambridge or Oxford. Perhaps the clash is inevitable: I have already come across three other cafes here that have scrapped their free wifi because they believe it is costing them revenue as a result of laptoppers spending too much time – and too little money – taking up tables.
Ronke Arogundade, the ebullient owner of Dough Lover, says her policy is about more than revenue. She wants to “revive the art of hospitality” in her first commercial venture (she has worked as a chef at many London venues) – and is not about to let the “black cloud” of people working on laptops spoil the conviviality of her establishment.
“Without laptops, people have a natural time cycle – they drink their coffee, have some food, chat and leave,” Arogundade says. “But when you open a computer you move beyond that natural cycle and lose touch with the environment around you.”
That environment could be Brighton or it could be New York. Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that a small chain in the city, Café Grumpy, had outlawed laptops from its premises – with the result being that “it feels more fun, more interactive, more like New York City”, according to co-owner Caroline Bell. As long ago as 2015, a cafe-restaurant in Burlington, Vermont, called August First reported a 14% increase in year-on-year sales after it imposed a ban on table-typers.
In Denmark, meanwhile, reviewers talk exitedly about Enghave Kaffe – the “best coffee shop in Copenhagen” – where laptops and iPads are eschewed in favour of “a book or a good talk”. Laptops were even banned in the University of Southampton students’ union cafe, prompting this response from concerned student Marie Avis: “Not all students work best in atmospheres like the library … this could prevent them from accessing the best environment for them to work in.”
In the four weeks since Dough Lover opened, Arogundade says they have had “six or seven conversations” with people who have taken their laptops out inside the cafe. “One woman got very annoyed, but another person was absolutely thrilled and asked me all about why we’re doing this.”
The following day, Arogundade emailed me to say that a table of five laptop users had walked out that morning: “I told my team we have to stick to our guns – hospitality has got to have its revival!”
Ambience aside, there is some evidence that working in a cafe, rather than at home on your own, can be a good idea. According to New Scientist, “mental effort is contagious” – if you plonk yourself down next to someone who is toiling away, it will inspire you to work harder.
Other academics have suggested it is the clatter and noise of a cafe that helps you concentrate. If you would like to test this theory without having to spend any money on a latte, check out the website Coffitivity, with its range of cafe soundtracks including “morning murmur”, “lunchtime lounge” and “Brazil bistro”.