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When a business should choose its battles to stay competitive

Every week for the past few months, I, along with a group of four to six others, meet at a local coffee shop to work and collaborate. Every week we purchase coffee and food, and have gotten to know the owner fairly well. This week being no different I bought my usual coffee, but decided to bring my lunch in a Tupperware container. About a quarter into my lunch, the owner came over and said she didn’t want outside food in her establishment – worried, I guess, that it would prompt others to follow suit, causing food sales to drop.

Now, I can certainly understand her thinking, but I think there’s a valid argument for both sides. On one hand, you have a business trying to turn a profit and needs to draw boundaries. On the other hand, you have a coffee shop where the key to survival is creating a sense of culture and community and allowing people to feel comfortable in that space. I also think her argument would be much stronger if this was a dining establishment, but its primary focus is coffee…”coffee shop” is in its name.

My question is where do you draw the line? Especially in today’s economy where business is highly competitive and the importance of customer service has reached new peaks. Do you turn the other cheek on occasion, especially when it involves a regular customer? Or is business business? Rules should be cut and dry, no exception?

I’m not saying I will never return to that coffee shop, but I packed up and left early partly so I could finish my lunch, but also because the encounter left a bad taste in my mouth. Personally, and I imagine other customers would have the same feeling, I will never buy lunch there and now feel a bit reluctant to even buy coffee.

Perhaps the owner ought to take a cue from the Starbucks of the world, who may not like when customers bring in their own food, but rather than watch like hawks over their customers, would rather create a place where people can hang out in a relaxed environment. It’s all about the long term, not short term food sales. Which place would you return to?

What do you think?

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