Wednesday, September 11, 2013

[Fox News] The return of café culture and the retaliation against coffee squatters

LAMILL Coffee Boutique, Los Angeles. 

This is the original version of a story that ran in Fox News with the much more dramatic headline, "Cafes declare war on Wi-Fi squatters." You can read the published version here

In the '90s (remember them? weren't they nice?), it was not uncommon to see hordes of teenagers and college students at your local Friends-style second-wave coffeehouse chain-smoking cigarettes and sucking down $1 cups of coffee. They would spend hours on end doing this, every single day. And they weren't sitting in silence staring mindlessly at their iPhones uploading "selfies" (now in the Oxford Dictionary!) on Instagram. They talked. To each other. As in, engaged in meaningful dialogue with other humans.

But a lot has changed in the last two decades. Now, we're all wired. Endlessly wired. Phillip K. Dick post-apocalyptic-cyberpunk-novel wired. We have our laptops and our smartphones and our iPads and we are on them ALL THE TIME checking Facebook and Twitter and Instagram or on Snapchat or playing Candy Crush. (Some people even do work.) Bars and restaurants are regularly filled with people blatantly ignoring each other, so much so that "phone-stacking" is a thing that now exists.

And cafes, the standard-bearers of quality social interaction amongst strangers and thinkers and activists and eager young adults since 14th century Turkey, are now full of "coffee squatters" – those who set up shop with their laptops and spend interminable hours gobbling up the café's bandwidth and available seating, making it so that other customers can't find a place to sit and negatively impacting the shop's business, all so they can do important things like update their Facebook status and download new albums from iTunes.

It wasn't always like this. Cafés offering free Wi-Fi did so with the best of intentions, trying to provide their customers with an additional value in the hopes of bringing more business. It started innocently enough – college students researching essays; business people checking emails (bear in mind, smartphones with email access are still a relatively new thing on the timeline of human existence). But the service is now being broadly abused, and café owners are fighting back.

In San Francisco, Luigi Di Ruocco, owner of Coffee Bar, recently made headlines after restricting access to laptop users during peak times and creating "laptop-free" seating so customers simply trying to have lunch will have somewhere to sit. Fellow café owners all over the country have chosen to place time limits on Wi-Fi use, require an access code to the wireless network (available only with purchase), cover their electrical outlets, or eliminate Wi-Fi altogether. Ben Popken of NBC News writes, "While the measures may seem a bit gruff for coffee shops that have long promoted themselves as a friendly and counter-cultural alternative to the mainstream coffee joints, they're an economic necessity. Coffee shops rely on a high volume of low-price items. Stores can't afford to provide temporary real estate to people looking for a remote office for which they only pay $1.85 in daily rent."

Forbes also warns of the financial threat of squatting. "A coffee shop will never make enough money to pay the bills from coffee sales alone," says Peter Baskerville in answer to the question, "What's the secret to a successful coffee shop?" He instructs café owners to worry less about offering things like Wi-Fi and more about increasing turnover and takeaways. "Takeaway customers pay the same price as the sit-down customer, but without any of the occupancy costs, and you will serve ten of them by the time your sit down customer has finished sipping on their first cup of coffee as they enjoy a chat with their friends on Facebook using your free Wi-Fi."

Jane Shihadeh previously owned Shoe's Cup and Cork in Leesburg, Virginia, a café by day and full fine dining restaurant and wine bar by night. "It's difficult to generate profit from coffee sales alone," she says. "Ultimately it's more about your average check in general. You really need people coming in to eat." She wanted to balance the restaurant with a relaxed coffeehouse vibe, and offered free Wi-Fi to encourage that. "What we found was that there were lots of people that would come in – if you were lucky they would maybe order a large coffee but sometimes they would just demand water – and would sit there for hours." She found that these customers were also the most demanding, and some would even use her café to solicit business from her other customers, engaging them in conversation about their web design needs. Eventually she sold the café (it is now operating under new ownership) and opened a much more straightforward Wi-Fi-free sandwich shop, Philly Rabe's.

In the hipsterific Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, LAMILL Coffee Boutique, referred to by USA Today as "the white-tablecloth restaurant of coffee shops," has a two-hour time limit on their wireless access because, as manager Dave Alfaro states, "It frees up space. We don't want people sitting there all day long while we have people who want to come in, get a coffee and eat their food." The Boutique also serves a thoughtful selection of wine, beer, and sake, as well as a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu. Coffee squatters aren't just taking up space and bandwidth (Alfaro has noticed many use the café's free Wi-Fi for large file downloads) from other would-be squatters looking to do the same, but are actually turning away other customers who have nowhere to sit. At Abraco in New York, which also serves a selection of house-made small plates and baked goods, it's standing-room-only – ensuring squatting isn't an issue.

Coffee shops that don't serve food or have only a limited menu of pastries available, like Verve in Santa Cruz, seem to fare better than those that are also restaurants. Ashley Epia, shift lead at the 41st Avenue location, says the Wi-Fi network is password-protected but the password is given out freely and there is no time limit for usage. The café has a small selection of pastries and does not offer table service. She says that "squatting" isn't really a problem and that people cycle out pretty well. But Verve is also a roaster with a strong wholesale business to support its cafés. Additionally, cafés like this that rely almost predominantly on coffee sales tend to be significantly smaller, thus offering significantly less seating – perhaps making the squatter a bit more self-conscious about taking up one of only a handful of seats.

But the hostility towards "squatters" isn't just about people taking up seats – though the lost revenue for businesses that rely on dine-in food sales is definitely a primary concern. For many it's also about the atmosphere they wish to create. New York's Café Grumpy doesn't offer Wi-Fi or allow laptops in four of their five locations. "For us, yes, it's a space issue, but it's also about the atmosphere it creates," says Café Grumpy owner Caroline Bell. Though the cafés only serve their own house-made pastries and don't face the same challenges as full sit-down restaurants, Bell wanted to create an atmosphere that was "more inviting," allowing for actual conversation to occur rather than the pitter-patter of laptop typing being the dominant sound. "It's less about turnover and more about the experience. People appreciate it." 

Walking into a café and seeing table after table of laptop zombies, faces bathed in blue from the glow of their screens, is a much different experience than walking into a café buzzing with excited conversation, whether it be about politics or the latest episode of Breaking Bad. In recent decades coffeehouses have evolved as much as technology. The ubiquity of smartphones has made the original intent of free Wi-Fi (as an additional service for customers to use sparingly as needed) obsolete, and third-wave coffeehouses are increasingly mindful of encouraging a sense of community – that centuries-old café culture in which cafés served as primary community gathering places.

While you could easily make a case that the squatters of decades past – the Beat writers of 1950s San Francisco, the postmodern philosophers of 1960s Paris, the goth and grunge kids of 1990s America – probably weren't producing high ticket averages, they were producing the kind of human interaction missing from the modern laptop mafia (and let's not get started on "co-working," i.e., ignoring each other in groups while taking up multiple seats). In an age of endless connectivity, sometimes people just want to feel connected; the retaliation against coffee squatting is just one manifestation of a growing social movement.