Let Them Eat Wi-Fi
by Steven Krolak
Not long ago, I walked into my favorite
coffeehouse, which I shall refer to as Cafe XYZ. I was looking
a pristine machiatto and possibly more, as it was raining and
I was a little hungry. Cafe XYZ is rather large by neighborhood
coffeehouse standards, and can seat 75 people comfortably. For
events, such as films and live music nights, they can pack in
double that number. But on this particular day, at 11 a.m., the
place was packed—with about 20 people. Packed? That’s
right, every four-top table was occupied, by a single person.
And each and every one of these people was working on a laptop
I drank my machiatto standing up, and then I left, without eating,
without reading a newspaper, without chatting with other people.
In fact, I was almost afraid
to chat with the owner, lest I break the furrowed-brow solemnity of people concentrating
so hard on their emails, spreadsheets, term papers, novels, haiku poems, or internet
I ate lunch somewhere else, and caught up with
the news on the radio and later, at home, on my own computer.
So my needs were
eventually satisfied, but the experience
jarred me. Here was a cafe full of people, each encased in his or her electronic
cocoon, interacting with other people who had one thing in common: they were
not in the cafe. It was weird, and it continued to bother me into the next day,
when I returned. Luckily, this time, I got my coffee AND a place to sit and enjoy
it. I also got a chance to chat with the owner, and I mentioned the events of
the previous day, and how the whole thing had, to put it bluntly, harshed my
He nodded understandingly. Since he had begun offering free wi-fi, he said, the
cafe had become a magnet for a whole new customer base. That was the good news.
The bad news was that these customers tended to like wi-fi and table space more
than coffee and panini. The result was what I had witnessed the previous day:
a cafe full of campers, many of whom had been nursing a single coffee drink through
several e-chats. The owner told me of one customer who had stayed in the cafe
for six hours. During that entire sojourn, he had only ordered one beverage.
I wondered if a homeless person who had happened to scrape together enough coinage
for a coffee would have been allowed to hang out that long.
Clearly, the situation
was out of hand. The mood of the place was changing, and business was suffering.
My mind raced to possible solutions, like employing bouncers
or installing ejector seats, but the owner had several of his own ideas he
was eager to try, and one of them showed up soon after: it was
a little sign that
encouraged wi-fi users to give up their seats to new arrivals during peak rush
It was ingenious. Did it work? Well, sort of. On a recent visit, there was
only one laptop in evidence, and the place was buzzing with conversation. But
of the baristi told me, “The sign gives us some leverage, but it [computer
camping] is still a problem—a big problem.”
This story is repeating itself at cafes all
over the country, where the wired freelance workforce now spends
a good part of its day.
We are all familiar with the concept of the “third place.” One of
the keys to any coffeehouse’s success is its ability to fill a widespread
need for a gathering place.
But at times it seems that the third place is
just the same old first and second places, with better coffee.
That’s fine, as long as the coffeehouse owner
doesn’t mind. But let us understand that the wired cafe is a different
animal. It looks and sounds different from a traditional cafe. And it feels
different. For example, just up the street from Cafe XYZ is another coffeehouse
call Cafe ABC, which has three tables and is not wired.
People come and go like
cars at a Jiffy-Lube. The place reminds me of Cheers. They really do know
your name and they really are glad you came—and left, coffee in hand. After
all, the owner of Cafe ABC is not running a library or a Christian Science Reading
Room. He’s running a business that requires a certain amount of turnover.
He’s not inhospitable, and people do spend time reading entire articles
in The New York Times or Harpers. Some stay and chat in cushy chairs. But
eventually, they leave, without having to be hinted out the door.
But the villain in the piece isn’t the coffeehouse owner, it’s
wi-fi. Or more precisely, the problem is that we have not yet found the
to integrate wi-fi into the coffeehouse setting. Is the solution technological
or managerial? Is it up to the company offering the service, or the coffeehouse
owner to figure this out? It’s a hard call, but I’d say that
the coffeehouse owner has enough on her or his place just trying to master
of coffee expertise. Wi-fi providers should be thinking through the set
of challenges implicit in their machinery, and working with coffeehouse
to tailor packages
that benefit both parties.
Freelance Writer Steven
Krolak, the former editor of Fresh
Cup Magazine, lives
in Portland, Oregon.