Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a stream of customers flows into Peregrine Espresso on 14th Street NW. Almost no one stays very long, since nearly all of the dozen seats are filled.
Two twentysomething guys in faded T-shirts and jeans casually chat at one of the tables, while a woman with frizzy gray hair intently edits a sheaf of papers nearby. The few laptops open are running Microsoft Word, not Facebook.
What kind of bullshit is this?
As a freelance journalist who has made a career out of frequenting java joints of every size, this doesn’t seem right. Places like this are supposed to be a haven for people like me who want to get out of the house just so that we feel like we’ve accomplished something.
It’s like there’s something missing here.
Oh, yeah, free Wi-Fi. What was once an integral coffeehouse element is now no longer guaranteed.
“When we signed the lease, it immediately occurred to me that we did not have the space to encourage people to hang out for long periods of time,” says Peregrine owner Ryan Jensen. “It wasn’t appropriate to offer Wi-Fi and end up with a situation where people could never expect to find a seat. It’s hard enough as it is.”
Jensen knows what it’s like to foster that type of environment, since Peregrine’s original Capitol Hill location offers free Wi-Fi, as did its predecessor, Murky Coffee. “There were some things that we didn’t really feel like we wanted to mess with,” he says. “One of those things was offering Wi-Fi.”
After over a decade in the business, Jensen has seen a shift: Coffee shops “went from being more communal places to being second offices for a lot of people,” he says. The squatters linger for long periods, take advantage of power outlets, and sometimes hog tables intended for multiple customers.
Qualia Coffee owner Joel Finkelstein has been on both sides. “I was a freelance journalist covering health care policy for three years before I opened a coffee shop, so I’m just as guilty of taking advantage as everybody else,” he says, before jokingly adding, “I helped put Mayorga in Silver Spring out of business.”
When Finkelstein opened Qualia in 2009, anyone could use its Wi-Fi for as long as they liked. “There’s the expectation that it will be available,” he says.
It might have been a sweet deal for freelancers, but it wasn’t a viable business model. “We were shootings ourselves in the foot by allowing people to sit here,” Finkelstein says. “It’s not the people who are here for an hour or two, it’s the people who are here for five, six, or seven hours. There were people that were putting in longer days than I was.”
Finkelstein decided to break down what each seat would have to earn in order for his shop to survive: about $10 an hour. This meant that squatters, who were sometimes buying just a single cup of coffee, were costing him thousands of dollars over time. So he decided to partially pull the plug. Today, Qualia bans laptops in the downstairs half of the café from noon to four on the weekends, though patrons can still access free Wi-Fi in the upstairs portion The last weekend of the month is completely Wi-Fi free.
“That’s a sanity thing,” says Finkelstein. “Trying to constantly negotiate between the people who are on computers and the people who just want a place to sit can be really stressful.”
Qualia’s website also employs a bit of guilt, reminding customers that “we cannot support camping for six hours on a single small coffee.”
This tactic seems to have worked. “Our revenue has gone up, which may be in part to our growth,” says Finkelstein, “but it’s also because we’ve figured out how to allow customers who are just coming for our coffee to feel that they can come here, be serviced, and get a seat.”
Rasheed Jabr, owner of Filter, refers to Wi-Fi as a “standard accessory” for coffeehouses, and he offers it without restriction at Filter’s Dupont Circle location. But things will be different at Filter’s forthcoming Foggy Bottom outlet. Not only is Jabr not offering free Internet access, he’s banning laptops altogether. “We’re going to put some up nice little polite signs that say ‘Please leave your laptops in your bags. This coffee shop is for socializing and conversation,’” he says.
Jabr says he’s optimistic about what will be the first laptop-free café in the city. “I want to bring back the old style of coffeehouse where people come to have a coffee or a shot of espresso and stay for a minute to thirty minutes,” he says.
Few others are ready to follow Jabr’s lead. Still, some competitors are tweaking the formula. Buzz Bakery in Alexandria offers free Wi-Fi, but designates certain tables computer-free. “Beginning Friday night through the weekend, the space we try to allocate to laptop users gets smaller and more concentrated,” says Kevin Tyldesley, director of operations for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns the café.
Others change the rules depending on the time of day. Pound the Hill’s free Wi-Fi ends at 4 p.m. every day. Big Bear Café goes offline on Saturdays between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Tryst shuts off the Internet all weekend long (and on federal holidays, too).
Slowly, we’re losing the expectation that coffee house Internet access will be as ubiquitous as cups or tables. As it happens, I’m finishing up this story at Baked & Wired in Georgetown. Booting up my laptop, I see that the Wi-Fi is password-protected. When I ask the cashier for the code, she passes me a slip of paper with the information. She offers a caveat: “Here’s the password,” she says. “But I can’t guarantee that it’s working.”
It isn’t. Looks like I’m going to have to simply write.
Illustration by Jandos Rothstein; photo by Darrow Montgomery
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com.