Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wifi? Need opinions please.

I've been pondering this issue for a while, and I think it's time to turn it out for feedback. Those of you who know me personally know that I'm no luddite. I like technology - I think it's really useful. However, I think that we often immerse ourselves in it to our detriment. And so, the subject of wifi is a difficult one.

The name Actual Cafe came from a conversation on this very topic. I was telling a friend that we're becoming more dependent on 'virtual' socializing, and that it's become a substitute for the real thing in many cases. And that we, as human beings, need actual contact in order to stay healthy - real face-to-face interaction. This is a key value of the Cafe.

When I was in early planning stages, I was considering leaving wifi off the menu entirely. I gave this some serious thought, for two reasons: 1) social interaction in the Cafe is so important to me, and 2) to avoid the potential for abuse. But, having thought about it, I decided that the positive aspects of connectivity are substantial, and that they justify providing the service. Which left me having to find ways to address the two problems - how can I encourage people to socialize even though there's wifi service? and how can I avoid being taken advantage of?

Let me expound on the abuse issue for a bit. It's not intuitive to many consumers of wifi in coffee shops that there is a finite resource at play. Most people think of wifi as cheap and abundant, and can't understand why there's any problem with providing it without limits or controversy. But, in the case of a cafe, the finite resource isn't the wifi primarily (although it is finite, and bandwidth hogs can take more than their fair share), it's the space inside the cafe. And that space can have a substantial cost.

The value of space in a cafe is variable. When it's empty, the value of a seat is nominal. It doesn't cost me much in electricity to keep the lights on and power a single laptop. But, when it's even a little bit full, a single seat can have a much higher value. Maybe that seat is the one with the best outside view, or the one with just the right amount of shade, or the one next to the cute girl/boy over there. And the fact that the right seat is unavailable might mean the difference between a customer coming in and passing by. This is compounded as the cafe gets more full. And a cafe can't exist without making sales - without paying customers coming and going pretty constantly.

And, on a personal note...let me tell you: if I'm not planning to set up my laptop and put some headphones on and disconnect from the world around me for a couple hours, when I look around a cafe and see that everyone around me is neck deep in their screens, I won't sit down. And so, here's the dillema. I think all of you can recall an experience at a coffee shop like the one I'm describing - where seemingly everyone inside is computing, and there's not much room for anything else to happen. It's not fun, and I want to avoid creating this sort of atmosphere at all costs.

So, how do we avoid this?

I considered various strategies:
- turn off the wifi at certain times of the day (too disruptive)
- put up some signs asking people to be considerate (too easy to ignore)
- approach people one-on-one and ask them to leave (too disruptive, and likely to end badly)
- limit available outlets on the floor (a bit passive) - one of the problems with this is that if there are any outlets available, they'll be overwhelmed with demand, and those seats will never be available to anyone else
- cross my fingers and hope there are no problems (risky, and hard to adjust later)

In the end, I'm leaning toward a solution which will generate time-limited passwords for users (sort of like the one Peet's uses). I'll give them away with a purchase (or maybe just for the asking). When they expire, the user will need another, which they can get by making another purchase (or maybe just for the asking again). I'll also be vocal about our policy, by posting some stuff on the website about it, and maybe having some printed materials around the Cafe for folks who ask questions.

Still reading? Good. It's interactive time. I'd love some feedback.

- Is it a better idea to keep wifi out of the picture entirely?
- Does the idea of limiting wifi annoy you? If so, is there a way to mitigate that annoyance (communication, etc.)?
- Should wifi use be given away without a purchase required?
- Do you understand why limiting wifi might be necessary for the success of the Cafe?
- Are there other approaches to limiting use that seem more reasonable or likely to succeed?

I'm sure some of you have opinions on this sort of thing - would love to see them aired here.



  1. I live nearby (60th & San Pablo) and occasionally go to Peet's in Emeryville for a change of scenery (vs home). I'd go much, much less often without wifi. Same would likely be the case with Actual (by the way when I first saw the sign I figured it was an ironic name, acknowledging the difficulty of doing business on San Pablo -- I'm happy to learn that isn't the story). Peet's system of 2hrs with purchase is ok. Paid wifi is less attractive to me as a customer (like Starbucks), but an option. However, something else to consider is that connectivity exists for many even if you don't provide it, and that is only going to increase. So if you don't want people camping out with their computers, [e]liminating wifi is not a long term solution. Limiting power outlets (or having none at all) will mitigate camping somewhat, but to the inconvenience of many customers, and those intent on camping out can use devices with batteries lasting many hours. There may be seating or seating arrangements that discourage camping, but there again you don't want to make the cafe less appealing overall as a side effect. Whatever your policy is I encourage you to make it very visible in the cafe. Highly visible "Actual Norms" may even make enforcement via limited logins or similar unecessary. Perhaps most important, set an example by having cafe staff mingle with customers like restaurant staff does, which will make people who only want to stare at their computers uncomfortable while opening up opportunities for social interactions among customers.

    Good luck and I hope to be a customer soon!

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  3. Best of luck, anything beats the hookers pooping and peeing in any crevice they find not to mention the crackheads and dope fiends smoking and shooting up in broad daylight, add that to the continuous wannabe thugs walking back and forth down the sidewalks attempting to be intimidating and one hates to even look out the window.

    If I could make a suggestion it would be to have some sort of deterrent for these idiots taggers who can ruin ones property in a matter of minutes.

    The bus stops across both streets are both extremely shady as are the areas down the block in front of and across the street from Alaska Gas, an eye or twelve should be kept in those general directions.

    Now that most of my negativity is out of my system and into the open I wish you nothing but the best of luck in this endeavor and welcome to the neighborhood.


  4. WSJ today -- No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users
    They Sit for Hours and Don't Spend Much; Getting the Bum's Rush in the Big Apple

    Lots of comments.

  5. @godspeed: thanks for the rant. san pablo is a challenging street to exist on, and i appreciate you guys having paved the way for not-as-intrepid guys like me.

    @ml - thanks for the WSJ link - someone on FB forwarded this to me as well. good to see it's not just me struggling with this, but disappointing that there's no great answer.

  6. I think the worst thing to do would be to provide wifi, then try to limit it if problems develop. Bad vibes all round.

    Given the manifesto of Actual Cafe, it would be completely understandable for you NOT to have wifi (while remaining open to the idea based on regular customer feedback).

    Have the necessary wiring but with cover plates on outlets not in use.

    These are sad times economically, but a startup business can't afford to provide free office space.

    In the worst case, wifi which keeps away paying customers will prevent you from reaching profitability. Then everyone loses: you, the people using your wifi, the other customers, the neighborhood ...

    BTW, is the neighborhood as bad as godspeed says? Should I bring my mace?

  7. P.S. Is the city going ahead with the lighting project?

  8. hola! aileen st. reprazent!

    i would really love you to have wifi because a lot of times i can only justify the semi-slacking off time and consumption of non homemade coffee by sneaking in a little work alongside my cafe exploration.

    that being said, if you had a time limit i would have no problem snacking and sipping the day away with purchases every ___ often. in fact, i might think of the time limit as a snack reminder - oops! time to get a snack and beverage!

    as for the community spirit, i think that is just going to happen organically, wifi or no wifi, if you have a good vibe, people will connect there. also you could have like trivia night or WAR card came night or something fun that would get people talking to each other.

    glad you are going to open soon (we hope)

  9. oh and about the neighborhood, i think beauty is in the eye of the beholder. my two adorable kids go to the elementary school (BMA) right down the street from your cafe and i found your site today because i walked my dog right by the joint.

    the area has it's good spots and bad spots, but i think you'll do just fine if you really reach out to the whole community, not just hipster gentrifiers, and plant your roots firmly and deeply.

  10. Hi,

    I live right around the corner on 63rd and San Pablo. I'm excited for your cafe to open.

    My opinion about the wifi thing is this: I hate going into cafes where everybody is sitting around zoned out on computers too, however there are times when it makes sense to be able to access wifi for free in a community place. I have noticed that some cafes have tried to find the balance by making the electrical outlets inaccessible to customers by covering them up. Yes, a little passive, but it seems to work as a natural time limit without the people working at the cafe having to hand out passcodes and rules.

    Good luck

  11. thanks for all the comments on this...there are lots on the Cafe's facebook page as well ( after reading and discussing all this, I've decided to go with my original plan - to provide wifi with time-limited passwords, which will be given to users with a purchase. hopefully, this won't be too annoying to the non-abusers, and will do something to discourage those who would otherwise camp out all day.

    and on the topic of the's block-to-block in this area - i spoke to the principal at Berkeley Maynard Academy (BMA), and she complained about the folks who use the path through her campus to do mischief. the school is right across from the Alaska Gas which is one of the neighborhood trouble spots - the trouble seems to come from the public housing complex right behind it.

    on the other hand, i also spoke to the folks at Sister Thea Bowman senior residences and Civicorps school (on the same block of Alcatraz as the Cafe), and they both said they have very few problems aside from the occasional graffiti tag.

    i'm sure we'll have some problems with troublemakers on the street, but i also know that the bulk of the folks in the neighborhood are good people. it's a shame that it takes so few to make the environment a whole lot worse.

    also, to the comment above about reaching out to everyone in the neighborhood, and not just the newcomers (i think the phrase was something like 'gentrifying hipsters') - that's exactly the idea. although the Cafe won't appeal to everyone, simply because it will have a specific aesthetic, menu, etc., i'm also doing what i can to make it affordable and appealing to people who have spent decades in the neighborhood. we'll see how that goes. see my more recent post for more on this.


  12. i know this is an old post... but i really am digging your manifesto for your new cafe. considering how in between work & my home (on alcatraz above MLK) this will hopefully become a place i will frequent.

    in regards to the wifi situation, i think that using the Peet's method of time limited usage would be smart. that way you somewhat thwart the campers and still make it a viable location for the occasional off site biz meeting or something.

    can't wait to start going to what looks to be my new fav. cafe ( what a horrible sentence, but you get the idea lol)

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