Coffee Shops Ponder Life Without WiFi

IMG_4093Claire Glass Coffee shop owners wonder if eliminating free WiFi access can reduce scenes like this, at Ninth Street Espresso, and improve their bottom lines.

When we East Villagers head to the coffee shop we claim the table, the nook, and the dent in the sofa as our own for hours on end because, well, it seldom costs more than the price of a cup of Joe. And what keeps us there? Often it’s the free WiFi.

But now local coffee purveyors are starting to re-think WiFi because offering unlimited access in exchange for a $3 cup of coffee draws enough Web-hungry customers to threaten their shops’ vibes and, sometimes, their bottom lines.

“It was a question of managing the Internet,” said Aaron Hagedorn, co-owner of Ost, a shop at 12th Street and Avenue A, explaining why he and his partner adopted a no-computer policy after 7 p.m. and eliminated WiFi after 11 a.m. on weekends at the start of the summer. “And we had to do just that — manage it — all the time. It would have been hard to stay in business if we didn’t.”

Not everyone was thrilled with the compromise.

“I don’t know how you can disconnect the use of Internet and coffee shops,” Ost customer Braden Smith said while enjoying an espresso. “They’ve always been places where you come and sit to work for hours.”

Mr. Hagedorn said that some customers seeking laptop-friendly real estate on weekdays took matters into their own hands.

“Those taller tables over there were supposed to be standing tables,” Mr. Hagedorn said. “But a lot of people were taking the bar stools and moving them there so they could sit with computers, so we figured we may as well put stools there.”

Ost isn’t the only neighborhood spot now on PC patrol. Paradiso owner Alessandra Veronessa said that about two months ago she began disabling the WiFi from 11 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. on weekdays and until 4 p.m. on weekends to make room for her lunch crowd.

“All of a sudden our tables started to look like cubicles for five, six, or seven hours at a time,” Ms. Veronessa said of her shop on Seventh Street and Avenue B. “We tried all-day Internet for a year but there were extension cords all over. It was like electricity was included in the price of a cappuccino.”

Ninth Street Espresso owner Ken Nye said that plugging in and tuning out isn’t what coffee shops are about.

IMG_4069Claire Glass A sign at Ost reflects changing attitudes by some business owners toward offering free WiFi access.

“Fifty percent of the people coming in here never go near a computer, so honestly it’s not business that’s a problem,” Mr. Nye said. “But some days I walk in here and there are 15 laptops open and you could hear a pin drop.”

The first of two Ninth Street Espresso shops in the East Village is on Ninth Street at Avenue C. It draws plenty of laptop-toting patrons thanks to its ample seating, snacks, and free WiFi. The 10th Street location, between Avenues A and B, has no Internet issues because of its limited seating, Mr. Nye said. He thinks that more business owners will begin to question the value of WiFi.

“The general tone among owners has gone from Internet being something you must offer to being something left open to choice,” he said. “We’ll either keep things the way they are, shut the Internet off on the weekends, or turn it off altogether on Ninth Street.” Cafe Abraco, an espresso bar that offers neither WiFi nor seating, is a case in point.

“Without tables people talk more,” owner Jamie McCormick said. “You’re not hiding behind computers here but at the same time we encourage people to hang around.”

Heather Russo, an Abraco customer who took her artisan brew outside to Tompkins Square Park said, “It’s not about the space. The coffee and the company are the draw and I think it could be a trend that will turn up more and more.”

Others agree.

“I never bring my laptop when I come to Ost or other coffee places because I like to see people,” said long time East Villager Hal Miller. “It’s the weirdest thing to walk by shops and see people just staring into screens. It’s so cold.”

But if you’re looking for a coffee shop where you can use the internet, mega chain Starbucks changed its WiFi policy at all locations, including the one at Ninth Street and Second Avenue, at the beginning of the summer. It now offers free WiFi to all patrons (paying or not) abolishing Internet access codes once sold at registers.

441 East 12th Street (at Avenue A)
Monday to Friday 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
 Saturday and Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Internet: Offers one hour of WiFi with one purchase. No WiFi on weekends or after 7 p.m. any day of the week.

Paradiso La Casa del Tiramisu
105 Avenue B (at Seventh Street)
Hours: Monday to Friday 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
 Saturday and Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Internet: Free WiFi seven days a week with blackouts from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and until 4 p.m. on weekends.

Ninth Street Espresso
700 East Ninth Street (between Avenues C and D)
Open daily 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Internet: Free WiFi with purchase; extensive seating and workspace.

Tompkins Square
341 East 10th Street (between Avenues A and B)
Hours: Open daily 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Internet: WiFi access with a purchase; limited work surfaces.

Blue Bird
72 East First Street
Hours: Monday to Saturday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
 Sunday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Internet: Limited computer space with small tables and a narrow bar with stools for outdoor seating. No WiFi on weekends.

B Cup
212 Avenue B (at 13th Street)
Hours: Open 24 hours, seven days a week.
Internet: Free WiFi. Internet use is encouraged.

This post has been changed to correct an error.