Tuesday, February 16, 2010

more time elapses...laptop-free weekends continue

It's been an interesting few more days over here. We continue to have lots of people coming through the doors who are really excited about laptop-free weekends, and also creating a space that's a bit different from the average cafe.

On the other hand, I've steeped myself in the negative opinions about what we're doing, and I'm sad to see that the one thing I wanted to avoid has come to pass: people have become polarized, which doesn't lead to any kind of solution.

The negative feedback I've seen and heard about seems to fall into a few general categories:

1) Technology is unequivocally good, and I'm crazy to want to limit it

This is an argument that I expected, and it's surprisingly a very small part of what folks seem to be upset about.

2) I am an annoying publicity-hound, and should shut up.

There's something to this, honestly. I did want attention on what we were doing here. I had been interviewed for a piece on oaklandnorth just after I had announced the laptop-free experiment. I sent out a press release about it, which I expected would be largely ignored.

I was interviewed by the Chronicle on Friday, and knew there was going to be a story in Saturday's paper. I had no idea that story would end up on the front page. I'm not sure it belonged there. I had no idea that that front page story would lead to so much other press. To be sure, I didn't turn down any interviews, and I took the attention to mean that there was a positive interest in what we were doing, which made me excited about it. Who would have thought that a brand-new little cafe in oakland trying out a slightly different technology policy would garner so much attention so quickly? Clearly, what we were doing struck a chord with some people.

With the space of a couple days, I feel like all the attention just got on some folks' nerves. For which I don't blame anyone. It probably also swelled up my head some. Sorry about all that.

So far, I have had great success with this project by being really open and direct. I don't plan to change that, at least not yet.

3) I don't have the right to make people talk to each other.

This is true. I can't make anyone talk to anyone else. I like it when it happens, but it's not something I can compel, nor do I want to. I'm only trying to create a balanced environment inside this place. Talking, working, reading, eating, whatevering all together, like ebony and ivory. Or something less corny.

4) I don't have the right to ask them to turn off their laptops, either.

This, I'm going to have to disagree about. There's a libertarian argument that crops up whenever there's the threat of regulation limiting some behavior (like smoking, for instance): that business owners can restrict behavior and customers can decide who to patronize - the market will sort everything out. In this case, I'm the business owner making a decision about how I run my business. I'm doing it for community-minded reasons, but the community won't fail if I do the wrong things - the cafe will.

Businesses restrict all sorts of activity all the time: no eating in your favorite boutique, no outside food or drink at the movie theater, no kids during school hours...I can go on and on. What's so different about limiting laptop use?

5) I'm a hypocrite.

I'm a technology guy. No doubt about it. I run my business on technology. I promote it using technology. I think the world is a better place in a lot of ways as a direct result of the widespread dissemination of technology. I think that the developing world's increasing access to technology is a great thing. I think my personal access to information when I need it is a great thing. It's so much easier to settle bets these days than when I was a youngster.

And, by the way, I first programmed a computer in something like 1978. I've been around and used computers most of my life. I managed a messaging hub for a thing called Fidonet back in the early 80's, out of my bedroom. I've evangelized broadband access, and helped build it. I've evangelized cheap cell phones, and helped build them, too. I've also spent a lot of time doing non-technology things along the way.

What's hypocritical about a guy like me wanting to create a space that's not all about technology? If anything, my experience should give me the right to have an opinion that includes some critical views. No?

One solution to this problem would be to turn off wifi altogether - like every day, not just weekends. I don't want to do that because there's utility in having it, and because lots of folks appreciate their ability to come on in and do wired things sometimes. Because I think technology is often a good thing, I want to create that balance that I think most other folks also appreciate.

6) I'm an idiot, and my business will fail because of it.

Possibly true on both points. The fact is that I (like any business owner) make great decisions and stupid ones constantly. When the great decisions outweigh the stupid ones, a business thrives. When the opposite is true, the business fails. Only time will tell which side I'll fall on.

7) Cafes should be wifi shacks. Period.

This strikes me as completely wrong. Cafes should be diverse and interesting, and should serve their own respective markets. There's room for all sorts in this little world of ours. I think we've experienced too much of the same in the last decade or so, and that a bit of variety is long overdue. For those that just want more of the same, it's easy to find out there as well.


I'm sad (although not surprised) to see that some faces that I used to see around here every day have stopped coming by. Obviously, they believe one or more of the seven things above. There are some new faces, which is nice, but I'll miss the old ones. I never wanted to drive people away - I just wanted them to leave their laptops at home a couple days a week.

Someone called me on the phone the other day, cursed me out, and hung up. This was a bit unnerving.

I've had angry comments on the facebook page, have a couple nasty emails, got some bad yelp reviews. Many from people who haven't been here, and maybe never will. I wish they'd stop by before they complained.

A guy came in the other night to pick up a friend who had been in the Cafe working for a while. When he walked in, he pointed the laptop-free weekend sign out to his friend, and without looking in my direction, hustled her out the front door. Which was a bit strange.

Apparently, a bar in SF had a trivia night last week, and one of the questions was about our new weekend policy. Lots of people knew the answer, and a heated discussion broke out afterward.

I don't want a fight.

We're going to continue our experiment, a bit more quietly, for the rest of the month. Jury's still out on the relative merits of this approach, and I'm still open to others. Cue the suspenseful music...


  1. I still haven't been by, but I think this is a great idea and I look forward to coming in and spending some quality knitting time in the cafe. :) I too work with computers 40 hours a week (I do tech support) and the idea of a technology free(ish) space sounds awesome to me.

    I'm curious to see the menu! I'm vegan. :3

  2. Keep up the great work. Thanks for being reasonable, creative, and principled.

  3. Sal, I understand that the Actual Cafe is your business. But the idea of forcibly limiting my cafe experience and view this action as something which

    a. Benefit me personally (Forcing interaction with the community, even though i interact with / or without my laptop)

    b. Allows you to have the right to view which portion of your customer population can choose manipulate (even though the end may be good) and/or alienate depending upon your perspective

    c. Allows you to not choose your one of your targeted markets (lets have bike-free wednesday's in honor of people who walk)

    Personnally, i think you are crossing boundaries of ethics, additionally your business won't fail per se, but is that your only measurement of success. You wont accommodate portions of your customer population with a legitimate amount of outlets, while propping up those you dont use technology as primarily as i do. All while building a business based off the need for technology. What's your point, to have a reality show or have an enjoyable customer experience for your patrons. (The latter should be enough) Lets face it, you got a little press and you've gotten nuts with it. The market will adapt, it always does.

  4. I'm amazed that the laptop-free weekend policy has created such a tempest in a tea - er - coffee pot.

    If I like a restaurant's ambiance, food and service, I'll go there. Should I happen by on a day they're having an event or policy I don't enjoy, I'll remember not to go on those days again.

    Good luck, Sal.

  5. I think it's weird that people who accuse Sal of forcing his opinion on others are doing exactly the same thing by insisting that he cave in to their opinions instead. If I a) need my laptop with me and b) either can't afford wifi in my own home or want to establish my own personal office in a public restaurant, then obviously there are other businesses that will satisfy my needs. And while I personally love my laptop, I also love empanadas, and I don't think it's a crisis of conscience for me to choose one over the other at any given moment. Making this decision into something bigger than it is tells us a lot more about the decisionmaker, not about the guy selling empanadas.

    I've also noticed that people with the sense of entitlement required to be upset about leaving their laptops at the door are probably the kind of people I won't miss at a cafe, so thanks Sal for giving me a safe haven on weekends. I'd respect your decision, either way, though, because I don't think I'm entitled to make a list of demands when you offer me a yummy cubano latte. I'll reconsider if you ask me to give up some constitutional rights in exchange for a latte, but we haven't gotten to that point yet, have we?

  6. The _hell_ you don't want a fight. This statement is the very stratospheric height of disingenuity. "I'm just a community minded guy trying to do what's right" Bollocks. This is all about publicity, at best and at worst you _really do_ believe your own b***shit which is even more terrifying.

    The market will sort it out. You got that right. I hope a Starbucks opens in the empty hustk of

  7. Maria:

    If this isssue isn't a 'crisis of conscience' for you then this can only be because you are devoid of one.

    And it's not about entitlement--or more accurately if it is, then I as a patron am entitled to take my business elsewhere. I'm not asking Sal to 'cave to my will'.

    Patrons who disagree with the policies of an establishment have a very effective way to make this known: withold their patronage. But it's if it's important enough to do, then it's just as important that the proprietor _know_ why you are doing so.

    So, I fundamentally disagree with the ethics, the propriety and the business sense of telling people that they 'shouldn't' use their laptops but instead 'should' -- well, what exactly? Give hugs to your neighbor? Sing kumbaya? Sally is pretty short on what exactly it is he DOES want from his patrons. Just wittering on about how technology isolates us blah blah blah.

    The whole thing is irritatingly hypocritical and cynical, despite Sally's protestations to the contrary.

  8. "What's so different about limiting laptop use?"

    Because there is no *Earthly* reason to do so!
    Who does it threaten? What is the harm?
    The examples you cite (outside food in a theatre, eating in a clothing store) have *manifestly* obvious detrimental effects on the establishment and other patrons.

    As long as someone isn't being disruptive (listening to music w/o headphones for example) how how HOW in the name of all things rational and SANE is it any of your concern as long as they're paying for purchases? This beggars the imagination!

  9. bschmidt: I think you've had enough coffee anyway; you're cut off dude (quite literally as well as figuratively, it would seem).

  10. "Making this decision into something bigger than it is tells us a lot more about the decisionmaker, not about the guy selling empanadas."

    *sigh* See what I mean? There's nothing unethical about Sal asking people to consider a different point of view, or about someone dispassionately explaining why he'd rather not consider it. Ad hominem attacks about whether I have a conscience don't make you less wrong, or less immature, or less irrationally emotional. The guy's trying to run a business, he knows some people disagree with him and he might have to re-think things if business slows down, and you don't have to throw a tantrum about it while explaining why you intend to help his business slow down. Unless you have the emotional IQ of a gerbil, in which case I'm sorry I overestimated you.

  11. Maria D and Others, i dont begrudge Sal's goal of running a successful business. But forcing patron's to adhere to his viewpoints on technology, i.e. "when and where its appropriate for usage". While simultanously leveraging the technology for enhancement of his business (you can use wifi, during the week). Then deciding to shift toward a laptop-free "add on" , "human interaction boost " on the weekend seems disingenuous. You want to enhance my experience and bring added enjoyment to the business, dont substract from my normal cafe environment, tell me its to my benefit, then say its all apart of making your place better than others. (Too many agenda's that are conflicting)

    You want to increase Actual Cafe's Position in the Market Place - Invest in having live music on the weekend or a friday nite. Or even poetry. But forcing your customer into a position of choice (enjoying your cafe or choosing another) is sad considering their aren't that many choices in the area. And it does go, im afraid to an extreme level of arrogance by the owner.

    My 2 cents

    that somehow its supposed to intensify

  12. I'm surprised at people's strong feelings on the issue, while I am personally bummed about laptop free weekends, I also think that there's nothing wrong with having techno-breaks. Honestly, I can go the library or a different coffee shop (although Actual is made of awesome) if I feel I need to use the internet on the weekend away from home.

    I'm super happy that Actual is a place where I can take my computer during the week, where I can watch a movie on Wednesdays and where they have a great open environment. Choice is nothing to get angry about. If I don't want to be in a space where they're showing a movie in a coffee shop I'm not going to go to Actual on Wednesday night.

    I fully support Actual standing by their convictions and trying something different. Thank you for choice!

  13. A quick glance at recent Yelp! reviews tells me that Actual has more to worry about than an insufferably smug no-laptop policy - service and food are (they are, aren't they?) kind of the backbone of a coffee shop. . . Get it together, dude or get gone. [I know which one my money is on]

  14. I don't think it's necessarily true that the regulars who've stopped coming believe one of those seven points. They might think what you're doing is perfectly fine, but, for their own part, prefer to use their laptops while in coffee shops. So, while they may respect your right to do what you're doing, and even agree that it may make your cafe better by your standards and those of many other people, they might still decide that visiting a laptop-free coffee shop isn't the experience for them.

  15. I can't believe that so many people have such a negative reaction to this new policy. I'm online all the time but can respect that a local business owner wants to run his business his way. Since when did wifi become a human right!?

    I suspect that this issue is about more than your cafe. It's a polarizing issue and people feel like you're making a judgment about their values and lifestyle.

    On the larger issue, no one is right or wrong. There's a balance.

  16. If I ever go to Oakland (I'm from Portugal), I'll surely try to go to Actual Cafe. It sounds great.

    Like many of the previous commenters, I can't believe there are so many people that really feel hurt or offended with the new policy.

    I know Technology and the WWW are amazing things; I've not doubts about that. I'm a master's student in Computer Science and I can't picture myself living without Internet. That's just it!

    But at the same time, I do have friends and I do like to hang out with them, and a laptop free environment sounds great for that.

    I think the worldwide society is walking towards a state in which they seem only to live and exists through their online presence. It should be the other way around; your online presence should be an evolution your real life.

    And come on(!), It just two days in the week. If you really need internet, just stay at home.

    Cheers to this policy!

  17. I would like to see Sal's honest commentary about the positive and/or negative impacts to his business. Me personally i think the brand he's trying to build isn't helped by the forced no-laptop stance. The positioning of the business becomes altered (invisibly to it's owner) in the mind of the the customer. "O I cant go to actualcafe on Saturday, they have a laptop policy". This thought by the customer should matter to Sal, more than his efforts to shift a technology-centric public away from technology.

  18. Hi Actual,

    I just checked out your site via a link by Jacob Zimmerman. I'm looking forward to your jazz series.
    Then I noticed your art tab and was struck by the photo on the industrial landscape by Glass. I paint a little and am working on some with very similar looks. I googled him and got wonderfully lost in his on-line portfolio.
    Thanks for the music support and the art.
    (we love local jazz too)