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Coffee shops are taking Wi-Fi off the menu

To stimulate sales, coffeehouses are pulling the plug on the Net.

August 08, 2010|Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Francisco —

Housed in an old San Francisco warehouse, Four Barrel Coffee — with its vintage record player, 53-year-old coffee roasting machine, tables hewn from recycled wood and wall of mounted boar heads — calls one of the world's most wired cities home.

But don't expect to get an Internet connection there.

Coffee connoisseurs hooked on this roaster's beans won't find a working signal — or even a power outlet. The uninitiated often try to plug into a fake one that owner Jeremy Tooker spray painted on the wall as a gag.

"There are lots of marks on the drywall," Tooker said, laughing.

About 30 miles south in Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley's technology industry, the Coupa Cafe offers some of the fastest Internet service in town. But even this popular hangout for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists bans Wi-Fi on weekends to make room for customers sans laptops.

"We had big parties or family groups who wanted to eat but had no room," said Jean Paul Coupal, who runs the cafe with his mother, Nancy. "They were getting upset about it. They felt the whole place was being taken over by techies."

Coffee shops were the retail pioneers of Wi-Fi, flipping the switch to lure customers. But now some owners are pulling the plug. They're finding that Wi-Fi freeloaders who camp out all day nursing a single cup of coffee are a drain on the bottom line. Others want to preserve a friendly vibe and keep their establishments from turning into "Matrix"-like zombie shacks where people type and don't talk.

That shift could gather steam now that free Wi-Fi is less of a perk after coffee giant Starbucks stopped charging for it last month.

"There is now a market niche for not having Wi-Fi," said Bryant Simon, a Temple University history professor and author of "Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks."

And not just for Luddites. Web designer Mike Kuniavsky, who has spent his career dissecting people's relationship to digital technology, hangs out at Four Barrel Coffee precisely because he can disconnect from the Internet and concentrate on his thoughts. That's where he wrote his upcoming book on consumer electronics design: "Smart Things."

"No Wi-Fi is the reason I was able to write the book," Kuniavsky said.

Dan and Nathalie Drozdenko turned off the Wi-Fi at their Los Angeles cafe when it malfunctioned. The complaints poured in, but so did the compliments: Lots of customers appreciated a wireless cup of joe at the Downbeat Cafe, a popular lunch spot in Echo Park.

"People come here because we don't offer it. They know they can get their work done and not get distracted," Dan Drozdenko said.

This is a 180-degree turn from the always-on culture of San Francisco, where the first Wi-Fi cafe went online in 2000. That's when Cliff Skolnick, a networking engineer who became a champion of piping free Wi-Fi to the world, beamed a wireless connection to the coffee shop near his apartment. The owners of Martha & Bros. Coffee Co. never even knew, Skolnick said.

Soon independent cafes began offering laptop-toting customers free access to the Internet to poach customers from Starbucks. But many discovered that Wi-Fi could eat into their business.

Coffeehouses have always attracted bookish deadbeats who stayed too long and bought too little. But suddenly these shops were teeming with electricity- and table-hogging laptops, leaving trails of tangled power cords and hard feelings. Too many customers spread out at big tables for long stretches over a lukewarm mug, forcing cafes to turn away business. One New York cafe even had a customer who installed himself and his desktop computer at one of its tables each day.

Cafe owners who grumble the loudest are those who serve meals. Customers who linger solo at large tables while working on their laptops can squeeze out the more lucrative lunch or dinner crowds. That got to be a bigger headache during the recession when frugal customers consumed less and stayed even longer, prompting more cafes to impose restrictions to encourage turnover.

Even as the economy rebounds, some eateries are keeping the Wi-Fi off during peak hours. The Literati Cafe in Brentwood unhooks during the lunchtime rush, manager Jon Eiswerth said.

"The Internet is a worm hole to the outside world, and we love that people use our space for that," Eiswerth said. "We are just trying to please as many people as possible and find the middle ground."

The middle ground for Nook in San Francisco's Russian Hill district is banning Wi-Fi in the evenings and on weekends.

"People were sitting all day long on one cup of coffee, blocking tables. Nobody was talking, and there was no table turnover. It was hard to make money," owner Nicola Blair Nook said. "I turn off the Wi-Fi and in 10 minutes all the computers are gone."

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