No-Wifi Cafes Get Pretty Passive-Aggressive With Their Customers

A New York Times story on the lengths cafe owners go to to keep patrons off the internet should spark a wider etiquette debate.

Horrendous scourge or just the way we live now? (Shutterstock)

In the 17th and 18th centuries, English coffeehouses were places of raucous debate sometimes referred to as “penny universities,” because for the price of a cup of coffee a man — and probably only men — could listen to or participate in some oratorical fireworks about the rights of commoners or the restoration of the monarchy. In all likelihood, some were home to erudite people jousting for intellectual sport, while others probably resembled a comments section. But caffeine-fueled liveliness was the entire point.

Fast-forward a few centuries and social mores around coffee have changed. People go to cuppings to savor the tasting notes of ethically sourced beans, but they also find themselves alone in crowded rooms where everyone is hunched over a laptop. The question now isn’t “Was life before the social contract nasty, brutish, and short?” but rather “Free wifi, or wifi-free?” Many top-tier San Francisco cafes — Four Barrel, Sightglass, Blue Bottle, Ritual — have moved away from providing internet to customers who often hog up seats for hours at a time, if they ever had it to begin with. But that’s because they’re temples to Third Wave coffee, not remote workstations. Pretty much wherever you go in town, within a few blocks there’s a place with an espresso machine and a restroom key on a big slotted spoon — plus a router and a bunch of plugs. 

The New York Times dove into the dilemma of cafe culture in a rather breathtaking way today, profiling owners in New York and Los Angeles who deliberately banish wifi in the hopes of creating a more sociable atmosphere. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. Every venue should determine what kind of place it wants to be. Moreover, entitled customers sometimes do terrible things, like rip up wallpaper to get to concealed outlets. But mostly, this debate is about the bottom line. As one L.A. cafe owner puts it, “Three hours for five dollars’ worth of coffee is not a model that works.”

In trying to maintain a certain vibe, some of these people go to pretty extraordinary lengths that I would argue undermine the very thing they want to obtain, in ways they hope will spare themselves the wrath of aggrieved Yelpers. Like this:

Jody Williams, who with Rita Sodi owns the West Village restaurant Via Carota 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.

Wow. That’s no carrot, all stick — and a great example of when “please” means the opposite of its actual definition. I would be mortified if a staffer said that to me, and my eyes would bug out in discomfort if he or she said that to a complete stranger sitting near me. (Although if customer A said it to customer B, I would probably silently cheer them on.) But Williams’ places are restaurants, not cafes, and I wholeheartedly agree with a piece Jay Barmann wrote for SFist a year ago that laptops in restaurants at dinner are really tacky and should be shamed away.

But that’s not the same as laptops in cafes during daylight hours, where the matter feels a little less ambiguous. Still, we have this:

If someone stakes out too much turf — if their belongings sprawl into nearby seating — it’s time for a polite intervention. “We won’t move anybody’s stuff,” [an owner of a NYC cafe chain] 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.

I’m going to call that “polite intervention” what it is: unvarnished passive-aggressiveness that is neither polite nor an intervention. Occasionally, while traveling, I’ve had to run somewhere to use wifi to write or edit something — and I always feel self-conscious when I’m the only one on my laptop, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. But I like to think most adults have enough awareness never to put a MacBook Pro on a tablecloth or move a soup spoon out of the way — and don’t most people who work remotely want to be around other people doing the same? Are rows of near-silent people really that big a nuisance? Must every freelancer and independent contractor sit at home alone all day?

Quiet without isolation is lovely sometimes, and no, loud bars and quiet cafes aren’t destroying democracy. I would rather plop down among 50 people in silent concentration than eavesdrop on someone loudly pitch a startup idea (or hear Aziz Ansari auditioning for a role via Skype as he did on Master of None). The NYT story quotes a “digital empathy” dude who — never mind, let’s not reward people like that by using them as examples of anything. But I think reasonable people can disagree on the parameters of laptop usage in cafes; the question is really the manner in which a particular cafe conveys its policy.

Sometimes, efforts to steer people in a certain direction are just plain clumsy. Starbucks, the monarch of the laptop farms, once famously tried to spark conversations about race by encouraging baristas to write “Race Together” on its cups, right next to your misspelled name. Is prodding people to act the way you wish they would necessarily the solution, especially when the scourge in question might simply be how life is lived in 21st-century America? Simply not having wifi, turning it off after 5 p.m., minimizing plugs, having no-laptop couches and tables, putting out lots of games — there are ways to get the point across without murmuring, “Ahem, a-hem!”

Let’s not forget who’s really caught in the middle here, either. Employees have to interact with assholes all day long while also keeping their social-engineer bosses happy. When I was a barista, I once stared stonefaced at a guy who came up to the counter yakking on his phone only to interrupt himself for half a second to ask, “Can I get some coffee, please?” I said I’d be happy to help him once he was off and he exploded, rubbing a one-dollar bill between his fingers to show me the gratuity I’d forfeited. That remains one of the proudest moments of my life.

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