Everybody who has ever had a laptop or WiFi device has probably surfed for free wifi spots at some point or other, and cafes are the most likely places to have them. It appears with the recession this has caused something of an epidemic:
Amid the economic downturn, there are fewer places in New York to plug in computers. As idle workers fill coffee-shop tables — nursing a single cup, if that, and surfing the Web for hours — and as shop owners struggle to stay in business, a decade-old love affair between coffee shops and laptop-wielding customers is fading. In some places, customers just get cold looks, but in a growing number of small coffee shops, firm restrictions on laptop use have been imposed and electric outlets have been locked. The laptop backlash may predate the recession, but the recession clearly has accelerated it.
“You don’t want to discourage it, it’s a wonderful tradition,” says Naidre’s owner Janice Pullicino, 53 years old. A former partner in a computer-graphics business, Ms. Pullicino insists she loves technology and hates to limit its use. But when she realized that people with laptops were taking up seats and driving away the more lucrative lunch crowd, she put up the sign. Last fall, she covered up some of the outlets, describing that as a “cost-cutting measure” to save electricity.
So far, this appears to be largely a New York phenomenon, though San Francisco’s Coffee Bar does now put out signs when the shop is crowded asking laptop users to share tables and make space for other customers.
I am guessing a lot of NZ’s barely crowded cafes would die for this sort of a problem. I have always been perplexed as to why more NZ cafes don’t cash in on it. After all, it costs hardly anything for a wireless router and unlimited broadband connection (expensive relative to the rest of the world maybe, but cost is negligble when spread across customers).
Some coffee shops say they still welcome laptop users, if only because they make the stores look busy. For some, the growing number of laptop-carrying customers with time on their hands is reason to expand. “I had to add more outlets and higher speed” in early June, says Sebastian Simsch, 40, the co-owner of Seattle Coffee Works. Starbucks Corp. coffee houses, which in some cases charge for Wi-Fi, and bookstore chain Borders Group Inc., which always charges for Wi-Fi, don’t have any plans to change their treatment of laptop customers. Neither does bookstore giant Barnes & Noble Inc., where the Wi-Fi is complimentary.
But in New York, the trend is accelerating among independents. At Cocoa Bar locations in Brooklyn and on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a five-month-old rule forbids laptops after 8 on Friday and Saturday nights. At Espresso 77 in Jackson Heights, Queens, owners covered three of five electric outlets six months ago after its loosely enforced laptop-use restrictions failed to encourage turnover. At two of three Café Grumpy locations — one in Brooklyn and the other in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood — laptops are never welcome.
What an interesting development, evil multinationals allow freedom for their customers to use laptops and WiFi while Independent Cafes turn their noses!
Laptop backlash poses particular difficulties for people without offices, says Leah Meyerhoff, 29, a film director and free-lancer. She long has used coffee shops to interview cast and crew and to work on pre-production. Now, she says, “it’s a constant search for places with the Internet where I can sit and focus without being frowned upon.”
“Good luck staying open when you’re turning half your clientele out on a Friday night,” Hannah Moots, 23, wrote about Cocoa Bar on Yelp, a Web site where customers rate retailers. When Ms. Moots, who aspires to be an archaeologist, met her boyfriend at the coffee shop after 8 p.m. on a Friday to work on graduate-school applications, she was ushered out, she says, even though the place was almost empty.
“We had to power down or leave instantly,” Ms. Moots wrote in her blog. She left and went to a different cafe, where she later expressed her dismay on the Web. Masoud Soltani, a Cocoa Bar owner, confirms that he sent her a Yelp message: “I remember you very well…I would not think you would write such bad stuff about us.” Mr. Soltani says she is no longer welcome in his store.
Customers’ frugality has reached extremes in the recession, the 40-year-old Mr. Soltani says. Some patrons show up with a tea bag for a free hot-water refill or quietly unwrap homemade sandwiches, he says. The Soltani brothers tried to adapt by adding sandwiches to their assortment of pastries and chocolates two months ago. And they want to be able to change the atmosphere after dark. “We lower the light, and it’s chocolate, wine and couples holding hands,” says Masoud’s brother Bahman. “What’s the guy with the laptop doing here?”
Some customers are sympathetic. Norm Elrod was “devastated,” he wrote on his blog — called “Jobless and Less” — when he spotted “little plastic covers on the electrical outlets, secured with little padlocks” at Espresso 77. “But I knew why they had done it,” the 37-year-old unemployed marketing manager says.
“I used to be one of the abusers,” Mr. Elrod confesses on his blog, “sipping a two-dollar cup of coffee in a to-go cup for hours.” But, he says in an interview, now he practices what he considers better coffee-shop etiquette, lingering over his laptop during off-hours and spending more money.
At Café Grumpy in Chelsea, Ty-Lör Boring, a 32-year-old chef, says he often uses his laptop at coffee shops, but loves it when there are none around because, then, people talk to one another.
“You can isolate yourself behind a laptop,” he says, “but look at this place: Almost everyone is having a conversation.”
I say fair enough if cafes are getting absolutely killed by their power bill. From the article above it doesn’t really seem like that’s the case though… (and even if it were, a solution would surely be to increase the price of coffee).
Which is why I can’t help wondering if there is a bit of technology-snobbery going on as well. After all, would these cafe owners be complaining if their cafes were filled with customers reading books instead of blogs?
Their attitude is certainly different to that of the owners of the first English coffeehouses that’s for certain:
There was no pressure to buy additional cups of coffee. A person could buy one cup of coffee and make it last all day. The shop was a warm place on a cold day. It was a comfortable place to smoke a pipe, either alone or with company. [In a coffeehouse] There was none of the enforced bonhomie of the inn if a person wished simply to sit alone, drink coffee and ruminate on the state of the world.
Today’s cafes encouraging less rumination on the state of the world, how far we’ve come….