As more workers treat the local cafe as an office, more owners are limiting their ability to hang out all day.
Are today’s coffee shops meant to be the new office space for America’s disconnected workers? Many establishments, especially the big chains like Starbucks offer free, unlimited Wi-Fi service for their patrons — presumably to let people linger and add to the ambiance. “We want to provide you with a great digital experience to go with your great cup of coffee,” the coffee chain’s website says.
But Starbucks and small, independent coffeehouses alike now have growing concerns about the large number of customers who camp out for hours at their tables. These “laptop hobos” are working, surfing the Web, using the shop’s outlets as an unlimited power supply for their wireless devices and occasionally getting downright territorial with other customers over space.
Some shops say they’ve had enough. They’re either laying down customer rules for Wi-Fi use or eliminating it at certain hours — or even altogether — while blocking their wall outlets.
“It got to the point where we had customers watching YouTube videos and blasting them at full volume,” Jason Burgett, a co-owner of the Wooden Spoon in Denver, told the Denver Post. Last year, Burgett’s coffee shop disabled its Wi-Fi and banned laptops and tablets.
“We’re a small shop with only 16 seats,” he added. “We prefer that our customers have the opportunity for social interaction.”
Even the big restaurant and coffee chains seem to be aware of the issue. Panera Bread now has a 30-minute Wi-Fi limit between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. “This time limit helps us service more customers at our peak business hours and frees up more tables,” Panera spokeswoman Missy Robinson told the Post.
As for Starbucks, a spokewoman told the newspaper individual shops can make their own decisions when it comes to customers and Wi-Fi use. But Reuters earlier reported some New York City Starbucks stores have blocked their electrical outlets to discourage laptop users from staying too long.
For centuries cafes have been places where people go to meet, trade gossip, network and otherwise come together informally, and some coffee shops are trying to encourage that social interaction again by taking action against the laptop hobos.
In Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood last year, Eleazar Delgado decided to limit Wi-Fi access at his Cafe Jumping Bean during peak weekday lunch hours and to turn it off on weekends. Delgago told the Chicago Tribune he made the decision after his lunchtime regulars complained they were being crowded out by laptop users. He originally worried his decision would kill business, but he found his revenue went up about 30%.
“I was amazed,” Delgado said. “The weekend policy worked like a charm. . . . People were hanging out. Now we have space for people to eat.”