Stars Café implements ‘screen-free’ policy

Pepe and Lydia Martinez, owners of Stars Café, want customers to relate to each other, and not to computer screens. (Credit: Shelter Island Reporter file photo)

Pepe and Lydia Martinez, owners of Stars Café, want customers to relate to each other, and not to computer screens. (Credit: Shelter Island Reporter file photo)

When approaching Stars Café during the summer, customers are greeted with music, overlapping conversations and a warm welcome from the staff.

One thing missing from the usual coffee house atmosphere is the sight of customers hunched over laptops, oblivious to everything except what’s on their screens.

That’s because the Heights cafe has implemented a new, “screen-free” policy, where customers can no longer bring laptops and/or tablets into the shop. The idea is to encourage face-to-face communication among its summer patrons, according to Lydia Martinez, who owns the café with her husband, Pepe.

Several signs around the shop ask patrons to “talk, laugh, sip your coffee and enjoy the summer breeze.”

The screen-free policy is now in effect for the second summer in a row, running from Memorial Day through Labor Day, during Stars busiest months.

Ms. Martinez explained that initially the café offered Wi-Fi to attract customers, but then she and her husband noticed some patrons were taking advantage of the space. Stars was losing “real” customers to people who “set up their offices” there, she said. The Martinez’s then read an article about a coffee shop similar to Stars that had banned computers and tablets, with marked success.

The goal when they tried out the no screens policy last summer was not just to open spaces for incoming customers, but also to create an atmosphere where people come to connect with other people and not just with an electronic devices. Though Ms. Martinez worried the café would lose customers, she found the opposite to be true.

“Most of our customers applauded the decision,” Ms. Martinez recalled. The co-owners received many compliments from patrons and friends, though some admitted they were surprised that it worked.

“I think it’s a pretty cool idea,” said summer resident Kyra Guillemim, grabbing a snack and an iced coffee one day last week at the counter. “We’re all so focused on technology, so I think Stars is a good place to take a break from that.”

When asked whether customers followed the policy, Ms. Martinez answered with a resounding “absolutely.” People are usually quick to correct themselves and put away their electronics when reminded by an employee. If necessary, however, Stars does allow customers to work on their laptops and tablets in its basement space.

But a few patrons were displeased with the new policy. Mrs. Martinez spoke of one haughty customer who repeatedly returned with his laptop, despite being told the rules. In an attempt to curb his hostility, the Martinez’s allowed him to work on his laptop at an outdoor table. One day, though, a heavy wind picked up an umbrella and broke his computer screen.

“Talk about karma,” Mrs. Martinez quipped. The customer even demanded that they pay for the repairs, which Mr. and Mrs. Martinez refused.

Stars Café is not the only participant in this new idea, but seems to be riding a trend. According to news sources such as the Guardian newspaper and Relevant magazine, small coffee shops in technological hubs, such as New York City, have begun to implement bans on laptops and tablets with the same goals in mind — to move customer traffic along and foster community and dialogue.

“Coffee shops are a place for conversation,” said one regular patron of Stars who didn’t want to give her name. “With an open laptop, you can close yourself off to others and miss an opportunity to meet someone.”