Coffeehouse owners pull plug on Wi-Fi

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 an Internet-free cup of joe at the Downbeat Cafe, a popular lunch spot.
“People come here because we don’t offer it. They know they can get their work done and not get distracted,” Dan Drozdenko said.
“People still desire and need actual interaction,” Temple University’s Simon said. “That dynamism is part of what makes us human. The coffeehouse is a manifestation of our desire for that connection to community and more vibrant life than in our homes.”

Jessica Guynn / Los Angeles Times

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