• June 23, 2018
    Last updated 8 minutes ago

careers

What to do when laptops and silence take over your cafe

Owners face a choice: Get tough and encourage workers to move, or embrace them and hope that a combination of guilt and loyalty will inspire them to spend more or leave sooner

By Karen Stabiner, NYT
17:02 February 15, 2018
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Kyle Glanville should have been thrilled. All 70 of the outdoor seats at Go Get Em Tiger were taken, only three days after he and his partner opened the cafe in the Los Feliz neighbourhood of Los Angeles.

He was not. “Everybody was at a laptop wearing headphones,” Glanville said. He strode inside, unplugged the device that provided free Wi-Fi and tossed it into a bin in his office.

He wanted a courtyard where people talked to one another, not a silent office for remote workers. And while anyone with a cell phone hot spot could connect without his help, he had made himself clear. On a recent weekday morning, almost a year and a half later, the courtyard was still full of people, but this time they were talking to one another. Only one was at his laptop.

Remote workers have staked out coffee shops for years, but small-business owners say their ranks are rising. In 2016, 43 per cent of US employees spent some time working remotely, according to a Gallup survey; the number who telecommute at least half the time has grown by 115 per cent since 2005, said a report last year from FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics.

Add in the self-employed, and the crowd gets even bigger. And while some still embrace the home-and-pajama model, a large contingent hits the corner cafe.

Starbucks may not feel the pinch, with its multibillion-dollar revenues and legions of grab-and-go customers, but for owners of smaller businesses, the math is grim.

“Three hours for $5 worth of coffee is not a model that works,” said David Wynn, co-owner of Triniti, a tiny cafe that opened two months ago east of Glanville’s place, on Sunset Boulevard in the Echo Park neighbourhood.

Owners face a choice: Get tough and encourage workers to move, or embrace them and hope that a combination of guilt and loyalty will inspire them to spend more or leave sooner.

It’s hard to know which is the right answer. “There’s no social order here to tell us how to behave,” said Glanville, as if he were contemplating a newly formed nation, which in a way he is. He took a no-tolerance stance on Wi-Fi because a single ground rule seemed more hospitable than a litany of restrictions.

Rich Nieto thought he was being tough enough when he limited workers to a dedicated laptop room at his 25-seat Sweetleaf cafe in Long Island City in the Queens borough of New York City. But when all eight laptop seats were taken one afternoon, a customer simply retired to another room, tore away the wallpaper to expose a purposely covered electrical outlet, and plugged in.

“You can’t win that battle,” said Nieto, who had already learnt his lesson the hard way. “The first time I saw someone with a laptop, I said, ‘Sorry, no laptops.’ Right after that, I got a one-star review on Yelp.”

Jody Williams, who with Rita Sodi owns the West Village restaurant Via Carota in New York City and has her own smaller place, Buvette, dislikes talking about policy and prefers to say that “laptops are frowned on.” A staff member will approach the uninitiated customer whose laptop is open for more than a couple of minutes with a gentle but firm request “to finish up what you’re doing and close the laptop, please,” she said.

When she and Sodi open Pisellino in April, the no-work attitude will be embedded in the design: a standing bar only 12 inches deep, no Wi-Fi, no outlets, five small cafe tables inside and 20 outside when the weather allows. Little opportunity to set up shop.

Even companies committed to accommodating remote workers look for ways to improve the relationship.

At Triniti, Wynn offers free Wi-Fi, but after two hours a customer must have “a face-to-face interaction” with an employee, he says, to get a new password. He relies on that interaction and the aromas from the kitchen to transform coffee drinkers into lunch customers, and has been gratified as the first wave of workers has started to order midday meals.

Bailey Arnold, director of education for Gregorys Coffee, says that many of the New York City-based company’s 25 outlets are in business districts to tap into a reliable stream of customers. But recently the company installed a brew bar at three branches, to emphasise coffee and conversation — and to speed turnover, and get away from what she calls “the old oblivious row of laptop, laptop, laptop.”

If someone stakes out too much turf — with belongings sprawling into nearby seating — it’s time for a polite intervention. “We won’t move anybody’s stuff,” Arnold said, “but an employee might start to clean the adjacent table and hope they get the hint.”

And if that doesn’t work, eventually the furniture will send a message. “The seating isn’t all that comfortable” for long sessions, she said.

Subtle means to influence behaviour

Jason Neroni, the chef and a partner in the Rose Cafe in the Venice neighbourhood of Los Angeles, said he was happy to run what he called “a commissary” for the nearby offices of Google, BuzzFeed and Snapchat — this part of the neighbourhood is known as Silicon Beach — and for self-employed people.

He sees them as the nascent regulars of tomorrow. And with 300 seats, he can afford to invest 85 to 90 cafe and patio seats in the future and still maintain a no-laptop policy in the main dining room.

He employs subtle means to influence the behaviour of working customers. Logging in for two hours of free Wi-Fi requires the user’s email address, which goes onto the Rose’s mailing list. And while people can log right back in, the expiration reminds them that it might be time to order another round.

Servers circulate to ask if they can get something else for a customer tied to his electronic devices. And Wi-Fi service ends at 5:30pm, to signal that the workday has ended and dinner service is about to begin.

Neroni tried extending the Wi-Fi until 7 one night, “as an experiment,” he said. “People looked up and figured we forgot to turn it off. And it was ‘Oh, boy,’ and a line of people carrying their open laptops into the dining room so they could keep working.” He reminded the disappointed throng of the dining-room no-laptop policy and resumed the 5:30 cut-off.

Like most cafés, the Rose doesn’t provide electrical outlets; a dwindling battery should be a sign that it’s time to go.

Some remote workers have gotten the message, and try to do their part. Jocelyn Johnson, who founded VideoInk, a digital trade publication about online video, relies on remote work sites including the Rose. She has defined a code of conduct to prove herself a good citizen.

Her self-imposed rules include working in one cafe or restaurant no more than three mornings a week, for no more than three hours at a stretch. She always orders a coffee and pastry, and frequently a lunch to go. Then she packs up and heads to another spot on her preferred list.

The only casualty of the plan is her social life, which she had hoped might include the Rose as well: She tried a weekend brunch there, only to realise that it felt too much like the office.

“I couldn’t enjoy myself,” she said. “I kept feeling that I ought to be working.”

Brian Swichkow, her frequent table mate, has no such problem.

Known to friends and colleagues as “the Rose Cafe guy” because he frequently shows up in the restaurant’s Instagram photos, Swichkow, the founder of Ghost Influence, takes his regular seat six or seven mornings a week, from which he advises clients on how to develop “digital empathy” in their online marketing.

He budgets $350 a month to cover coffee, frequent breakfasts and lunch to go if he’s headed straight to a meeting. Business lunches or drinks are always at the Rose, and yet he figures his home away from home still costs about $100 less than a shared workspace.

But there’s a big gap between a customer who invests in his remote workspace and one who rips the wallpaper to get at an outlet. Cafe owners find it difficult to define a consistent strategy without a proven, profitable relationship model.

Glanville yanked the Wi-Fi at Go Get Em Tiger, but he provides it at two other locations that are not as much of a hub for remote workers. He’ll do so again at a smaller fourth cafe opening this spring in the Highland Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles.

He can’t imagine that remote workers will find the new place a comfortable home, so he has decided to take a chance and accommodate people who want recreational access.

Still, there’s no way to know for sure if the working masses will turn up. “If they can figure out how to work squished into 15 seats with Prince blaring on the sound system,” he said, with a shrug, “more power to them.”