Let Them Eat WiFi
by Steven Krolak

Green Café

By Karen Cerbreros

Caffe Ambiance

by Bruce Millletto


What's Brewin'
— Coffee News Flash

 

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 forward to 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 computer.

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 shopping binges.

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 mellow.

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 periods.

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 one 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 we shall 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 optimal way 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 the art of coffee expertise. Wi-fi providers should be thinking through the set of challenges implicit in their machinery, and working with coffeehouse owners to tailor packages that benefit both parties.



 

 

Freelance Writer Steven Krolak, the former editor of Fresh Cup Magazine, lives in Portland, Oregon.


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