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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

Feeding a Need for the Net

Cyber cafes may differ in decor, but they're similar in concept: a meeting of the minds with coffee, a muffin and more thrown in.

August 01, 1996|ANN SHIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A visitor from Indiana checks on her e-mail, while a college student researches the latest data on the rain forest. She's drinking a cafe latte, he's munching a bagel. At another station, a customer navigates the Internet while his salad wilts. It's a typical day at a cyber cafe, one of more than 400 that have sprouted up around the world, from Simi Valley and Ventura to Paris and Bangkok.

What isn't typical yet is the cyber cafe concept. From rudimentary to high tech, the cafes run the gamut from glitz to grunge, from your basic coffeehouse equipped with one or two online computers to full-service restaurants where you can arrange audio-visual teleconferencing with a business associate in London.

The decor may be vintage thrift store or decorator chic, but access to the Internet along with food and drink is the common thread. So what's luring people of all ages to surf the Net in these public places?

"Try-before-you-buy is the reason a lot of people come in. There's so much technology out there, people don't have the time or money to check it all out. That's what we offer," said Tomas Wise, co-owner of New York's Cyber Cafe Inc. The company holds the only official trademark on the Cyber Cafe name, which has since gone generic.

Located in Manhattan's media center, which Wise laughingly refers to as Silicon Alley, the cafe caters to a professional clientele that includes hardware and software developers. Consequently, his upscale operation has the fastest and latest equipment.

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There are experts on staff to service, advise and train people. The T1 line, the fastest available at the moment, can accommodate 100 computers at a time, although there are only nine on site right now. A client with a portable computer and an Internet card can plug into one of the cafe's portable jacks, have a T1 at their disposal and download onto their own computer. Is the high-tech expense worth it? Wise believes it is.

"The history of cafes has been as places to meet your friends, communicate, read your papers, write and correspond," he said. "The idea is to revolutionize cafes as communications change and people communicate in different ways."

A far cry from the days of the neighborhood diner with mini jukeboxes at each table, cyber cafes attract people who seek a connection to the world at their fingertips and a desire for a sense of community in this technological age.

In our own backyard, there's Cyber House in Simi and the SurfNet Cafe in Ventura. Those heading up or down the coast will stumble upon a number of coffeehouses that have a few computers thrown into the mix.

And those interested in a major media blow-out (and who don't mind driving to get one) may want to consider checking out the show business-oriented Industry Cyber Cafe in West Hollywood or the Virtual Cineplex at Media City Center mall in Burbank.

The SurfNet Cafe, nestled among a row of offices in a Ventura business complex, is not easily found by walk-ins, but word has been getting around since it opened last November. In fact, Steve LeCroy, co-owner with his brother, Jim, said one woman came in after hearing about the place while on a chat line with a friend in Ireland.

"The food and coffee is the reason we're still around. The Internet is about 20% of our income," he said. Customers stream in throughout the day for coffee, muffins, bagels to go. Cruising the Net is free while you wait for a food order. Otherwise, the cost is $6 an hour, or 10 cents a minute.

The place is airy with floor-to-ceiling windows, magazines and free newspapers on a rack. The menu board features everything from breakfast burritos to grilled chicken sandwiches. Renee Smith, LeCroy's fiancee and partner, cooks and keeps the place humming. LeCroy is the computer expert, offering free classes Wednesday and Thursday evenings. But you can get help on the spot most of the time, with the possible exception of noon through 2 p.m. weekdays when LeCroy said the place is like a zoo.

Many of SurfNet's customers are business people from the area, some are college students doing research or relaxing by zapping the enemy in cyber space.

A typical professional user is Troy Van Natta, a Web page developer from Santa Barbara, who on a recent day was showing local Art City sculptors, Alexandra Morosco and Joanne Duby, a Web page he had designed for them.

Duby referred to herself as computer stupid but said she is open to learning. There was barely room for the Cobb salad and oversized cup of coffee at the station.

As with other cyber cafes, SurfNet provides access to the World Wide Web through a high-speed ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) connection, which is just below the T1 in speed. Interactive cyber games and e-mail access are popular attractions. And if you have your own Internet account, you can bring in a laptop, connect through SurfNet's modem and work away, an attractive option if your home computer or online provider is in a snit.

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