Coffee shops are taking Wi-Fi off the menu
Housed in an old San Francisco warehouse, Four Barrel Coffee — with its vintage record player, 53-year-old coffee roasting machine, tables hewn from recycled wood and wall of mounted boar heads — calls one of the world’s most wired cities home.
But don’t expect to get an Internet connection there.
Coffee connoisseurs hooked on this roaster’s beans won’t find a working signal — or even a power outlet. The uninitiated often try to plug into a fake one that owner Jeremy Tooker spray painted on the wall as a gag.
“There are lots of marks on the drywall,” Tooker said, laughing.
About 30 miles south in Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley’s technology industry, the Coupa Cafe offers some of the fastest Internet service in town. But even this popular hangout for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists bans Wi-Fi on weekends to make room for customers sans laptops.
“We had big parties or family groups who wanted to eat but had no room,” said Jean Paul Coupal, who runs the cafe with his mother, Nancy. “They were getting upset about it. They felt the whole place was being taken over by techies.”
Coffee shops were the retail pioneers of Wi-Fi, flipping the switch to lure customers. But now some owners are pulling the plug. They’re finding that Wi-Fi freeloaders who camp out all day nursing a single cup of coffee are a drain on the bottom line. Others want to preserve a friendly vibe and keep their establishments from turning into “Matrix"-like zombie shacks where people type and don’t talk.
That shift could gather steam now that free Wi-Fi is less of a perk after coffee giant Starbucks stopped charging for it last month.
“There is now a market niche for not having Wi-Fi,” said Bryant Simon, a Temple University history professor and author of “Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks.”
And not just for Luddites. Web designer Mike Kuniavsky, who has spent his career dissecting people’s relationship to digital technology, hangs out at Four Barrel Coffee precisely because he can disconnect from the Internet and concentrate on his thoughts. That’s where he wrote his upcoming book on consumer electronics design: “Smart Things.”
“No Wi-Fi is the reason I was able to write the book,” Kuniavsky said.
Dan and Nathalie Drozdenko turned off the Wi-Fi at their Los Angeles cafe when it malfunctioned. The complaints poured in, but so did the compliments: Lots of customers appreciated a wireless cup of joe at the Downbeat Cafe, a popular lunch spot in Echo Park.
“People come here because we don’t offer it. They know they can get their work done and not get distracted,” Dan Drozdenko said.
This is a 180-degree turn from the always-on culture of San Francisco, where the first Wi-Fi cafe went online in 2000. That’s when Cliff Skolnick, a networking engineer who became a champion of piping free Wi-Fi to the world, beamed a wireless connection to the coffee shop near his apartment. The owners of Martha & Bros. Coffee Co. never even knew, Skolnick said.
Soon independent cafes began offering laptop-toting customers free access to the Internet to poach customers from Starbucks. But many discovered that Wi-Fi could eat into their business.
Coffeehouses have always attracted bookish deadbeats who stayed too long and bought too little. But suddenly these shops were teeming with electricity- and table-hogging laptops, leaving trails of tangled power cords and hard feelings. Too many customers spread out at big tables for long stretches over a lukewarm mug, forcing cafes to turn away business. One New York cafe even had a customer who installed himself and his desktop computer at one of its tables each day.
Cafe owners who grumble the loudest are those who serve meals. Customers who linger solo at large tables while working on their laptops can squeeze out the more lucrative lunch or dinner crowds. That got to be a bigger headache during the recession when frugal customers consumed less and stayed even longer, prompting more cafes to impose restrictions to encourage turnover.
Even as the economy rebounds, some eateries are keeping the Wi-Fi off during peak hours. The Literati Cafe in Brentwood unhooks during the lunchtime rush, manager Jon Eiswerth said.
“The Internet is a worm hole to the outside world, and we love that people use our space for that,” Eiswerth said. “We are just trying to please as many people as possible and find the middle ground.”
The middle ground for Nook in San Francisco’s Russian Hill district is banning Wi-Fi in the evenings and on weekends.
“People were sitting all day long on one cup of coffee, blocking tables. Nobody was talking, and there was no table turnover. It was hard to make money,” owner Nicola Blair Nook said. “I turn off the Wi-Fi and in 10 minutes all the computers are gone.”
Cafe owners have tried a variety of tactics to foil Wi-Fi squatters. They put out signs that ask laptop users to share tables or point them to nearby Wi-Fi hot spots such as public libraries. They hand out wireless passwords that expire in an hour. They cover electrical outlets (less effective now that customers come armed with laptops sporting longer battery lives or with spare batteries). Computer bans extend to iPads and even Kindles and other e-readers, although paper books and other reading materials are still embraced.
Tooker of Four Barrel Coffee says he turned his cafe into a wireless-free zone to encourage his customers to interact with one another rather than their computer screens. He opened his first coffee shop, Ritual Roasters, with his former business partner Eileen Hassi in San Francisco in 2005. They installed Wi-Fi to draw a crowd — a strategy that worked too well. Ritual Roasters had to clamp down after techies with laptops and business plans took over the space. The cafe now covers the electrical outlets with switch plates.
“We just realized it was a mistake. People would just camp out for hours, literally eight hours on one cup of coffee. We only had 75 seats, and those were always full,” Tooker said. “It killed the vibe, too.”
Tooker is following the example of Victrola Coffee & Art in Seattle, one of the first cafes to disconnect Wi-Fi in 2005 after the owners noticed that friends were no longer talking and strangers were no longer meeting. At the time, it was a daring move. Now cafes are more frequently trying to reboot their culture by giving Wi-Fi the boot.
“People still desire and need actual interaction,” Temple University’s Simon said. “That dynamism is part of what makes us human. The coffeehouse is a manifestation of our desire for that connection to community and more vibrant life than in our homes.”
Coffeehouses have a rich history as community meeting places that can be traced back centuries to the Ottoman empire. They first popped up in Europe in the 17th century, open only to men but to all social classes. Eighteenth-century London saw the rise of the Penny University, where people paid a penny to drink coffee and debate the latest news in local coffeehouses. Italian immigrant communities imported the experience to major cities in the United States. In San Francisco’s North Beach district, for example, coffeehouses became the literary home away from home to the Beat Generation’s Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Some cafes have retained their character as hangouts to share news and gossip with friends over a cup of coffee or a meal. Others have morphed into 21st-century cubicle farms where young techies set up shop, bang out code, meet with investors, run beta tests and even troubleshoot the Internet connection for cafe owners when it goes on the blink. The trend has seen coffeehouses supplant garages as hatcheries for tech start-ups. This isn’t without historical precedent. Examples of business being conducted in coffeehouses traces back to 1688, when insurer Lloyd’s of London got its start in one in London. The Tontine Coffee House was the original location for the New York Stock Exchange in 1792.
Many cafes embrace this melding of coffee and commerce. Seattle Coffee Works near Pike Place Market has ramped up the speed and added more electrical outlets (30 outlets for 40 seats) to keep up with demand.
Co-owner Sebastian Simsch said the Internet is far from a buzz kill. It’s a business opportunity. Wi-Fi in coffeehouses helps people make connections in the broader world. They may not make friends with someone at the next table, but they check in with friends all over through e-mail or on popular Internet sites such as Facebook.
“It would be ridiculous if we didn’t have Wi-Fi,” Simsch said.
For holdouts like Tooker, the glut of Wi-Fi has made it tougher to keep people from zoning out on laptops.
Across the street from Four Barrel is a new housing project. Coffee drinkers can access its Wi-Fi if they sit at a counter that stretches along the front window of the shop. And, more and more, cafe nomads bring their own portable hot spots — devices that connect laptops to the Internet from anywhere — so they can plug in whether or not a cafe offers Wi-Fi.
Tooker shrugs his shoulders. On a busy weekday afternoon, his shop is packed with customers, only two of whom are gazing at laptops. His decision to ban Wi-Fi hasn’t undercut business: Four Barrel goes through an average of 700 pounds of coffee each week.
“We don’t glare at someone with a laptop,” he said. “But we don’t cater to that person either.”