Wi-Fi and screen-time policing at cafés has less to do with money and missed earnings: the main culprit is our attitude. Admittedly, it feels like strict policy, but we can all learn a lesson from this.
— Angelica Frey
In an era where remote work has taken off, cafés that, in the past decade, were de facto virtual offices, are now taking an increasingly strict stance towards electronics. In the U.S., 43 percent of workers spend some time working remotely, per a 2017 poll.
Some places, like The Annex in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, give out timed Wi-Fi codes with each purchase, others, such as Cuvee Coffee in Austin, are generous in terms of power outlets but cut down on Wi-Fi, while some places go as far as taking a hard stance against screens. It looks like a lot of rules for a seemingly mundane activity, right? Well, we kind of brought it upon ourselves.
To café owners, those mooching on their Wi-Fi for hours, mistaking a café for a remote office are not necessarily bad for business when it comes to transactions but they are highly disruptive of the vibe and energy of the place. Caroline Bell, the co-owner of Café Grumpy, cites mood and spaces issues for the electronics policies of her coffee shops: the Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Miami locations allow Wi-Fi, while most of the other New York locations rely on a barista’s discretion depending on crowds. (The spaces used to be strictly no-laptop.)
“If it’s slow and there is space, like in the back room at our Chelsea store, you can use your laptop,” she told Skift Table. “If it’s a busy weekend at our Park Slope location and you take out your laptop, we will probably ask you not to use it.”
Drawing a Line
Catherine May, the owner of the Brooklyn-based Maison May, tends to not give her Wi-Fi password away and has a hard rule against any device that requires a keyboard. “For me, to have laptops would completely blur the energy and so my rule is very simple: phone and iPad are fine. We basically don’t allow keyboards,” she explained. “If you have an iPad, and then you put your keyboard out, then I am going to kick you out. To read on an iPad or from a book is really different from being absorbed in typing something.” She equates her business to her own home. Were you invited to someone’s place for coffee, she said, would you just pull your laptop out?
Ernie Altenreuther, who owns the legendary Ernie’s Tin Bar in Petaluma, California, even banished cellphones because of the way electronics impacted interaction. “Our annoyance for the devices is the way they negatively affect the social aspect of being in a bar and the general feeling of the place,” he told Skift Table. However, he had to limit the rule to the bar area. “We prefer people to not use their phone at all but find that it creates too combative of a stance with customers and that is not what we are going for at all.”
Laptops are a rare stance at his place. “Those that have tried [to bring one] usually give up fairly quickly,” he says. “We are a busy bar at most times and a laptop takes up a lot of bar space and people want to talk to you so getting work done isn’t easy.“ He also intentionally keeps the wording of the rules quite vague, so that he can liberally call out any behavior that spoils the attitude of his space.
“There is a very big difference between the person who is looking for a virtual office and someone who is looking for a place to relax or read,” Mike McKim, owner of Cuvée Coffee Bar, cleverly sums it up: if one person comes in to have coffee or beer then reads a book, while another comes in to work and buys a coffee or beer, they both complete a similar transaction but they are different customers. “This is the thing that people overlook and is never part of the conversation,” McKim continued. “Our experience has been that the person who comes in for Wi-Fi is often a self absorbed, entitled a**hole who feels like their constitutional rights have been violated if Wi-Fi is not an option.”
It’s Not the Time That Matters
As it turns out, people sticking around a place for too long are only a secondary issue. While most Café Grumpy locations are located alongside busy arteries, where people either meet friends for a short amount of time or take coffee to go, the aforementioned Greenpoint location, for example, is less concerned with lingering customers using Wi-Fi. Bell acknowledges that it’s mainly a crowd of freelancers and remote workers trying to do their jobs. The same applies to places that have a stricter stance against electronics. Catherine May does not pose time limits, and has no problems with people bringing a stack of paperwork to labor on. “If you come, read your book for three hours, I would be happy,” she said. “I wouldn’t make a penny but that would make me happy because that means you’re comfortable enough, and that the space is welcoming enough.”
True, these places do encounter a disgruntled customer from time to time, but that’s not enough for them to warrant a change in business plan, and for a good reason. “I will say this… ” Mc Kim teased, adding that his business experienced steady growth from 2015 to 2017. “We quietly turned on the Wi-Fi at the beginning of this year and sales are down 17 percent. I don’t think I can confidently pin point that to just Wi-Fi, but I’ll keep studying the trend.”