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Some Cafe Owners Pull the Plug on Lingering Wi-Fi Users

Published: June 13, 2005

SEATTLE, June 12 - The staff at Victrola Café & Art is sick of talking about Wi-Fi. Given the opportunity, as at a recent cupping in the back of the store to smell and taste the latest in-house roasts, the group prefers to talk about cafe culture, or how to create a nuanced light roasted coffee.

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Annie Marie Musselman for The New York Times

Jen Strongin and Chris Sharp, the owners of Victrola Cafe in Seattle, said profit rose after they stopped free wireless Internet service on weekends.


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But lately, the subject of Wi-Fi - specifically, the cafe's move to cut back on the free Wi-Fi connection it provides for patrons' Internet use - has been impossible to avoid. "It's distracting," said Jen Strongin, a co-owner.

Victrola started providing free wireless access two years ago after customers asked for it. As in hundreds of other cafes, the owners hoped it would encourage regulars and infrequent patrons to buy more food and drinks. But there was also a disadvantage, staff members said: the cafe filled with laptop users each weekend, often one to a table meant for four. Some would sit for six to eight hours purchasing a single drink, or nothing at all.

Even worse, when lingerers were confronted, they were bellicose. "We get yelled at by people who feel it's their right" to use Victrola's Wi-Fi without making a purchase, Ms. Strongin said. Tony Konecny, the shop's head roaster, added, "It's rarely a pleasant interaction."

But Ms. Strongin and her staff said they were more concerned that the cafe, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, had turned into a place devoid of sound except the light clack of keys, not the focus of lively interaction that she and her husband, Chris Sharp, had intended.

So last month the cafe discontinued the free service on Saturdays and Sundays - and so far it has proved to be a sound business move. Weekend revenue is up and more seats are filled.

Victrola is part of the emerging expectation that cafes will provide Wi-Fi, free or for a fee. In the United States, more than 8,500 cafes offer Wi-Fi, based on online listings of Wi-Fi locations; 3,500 provide it at no charge, according to MetroFreeFi.com, a site devoted to free wireless access. Those offering it free include chains like Panera Bread as well as independent stores; others, like Starbucks, provide the service for a fee through T-Mobile or other providers.

Some of Victrola's customers were in a slight state of disbelief when the Wi-Fi was disconnected. One regular customer repeated over and over, "That just doesn't work for me," Ms. Strongin said.

Where some see a curse, others see a blessing. A Victrola competitor, the Zoka Roasting Company, which has two branches that offer free Wi-Fi, is doubling its store near the University of Washington, adding 1,400 square feet to accommodate 45 more seats.

"Students and young people are the majority of people who hang out at coffee shops, and they all use Internet and computers as a major part of the day," said Jeff Babcock, Zoka's owner. "And I'm not going to exclude that. If it gets too busy and packed, I'll build another one."

Independent cafes have experienced mixed results with free Wi-Fi, however, according to many cafes and hotspot operators. A cafe's nature can be classified as "office," "social," or a hybrid, according to research by Sean Savage, who recently earned his master's degree from the University of California, Berkeley. His thesis focused on the intersection of technology and society in cafes.

In his work, Mr. Savage found that an office cafe discouraged conversation and was filled with people who came alone and were focused on their work. Social cafes have customers who arrive in groups. "If you come into a place like that and it's a particularly busy time, you get dirty looks if you open a laptop and start zoning out," Mr. Savage said. But the hybrid cafes were more complicated. Many of these hybrid cafes, like the Canvas Gallery in San Francisco, are a "different place at different times of day," he said.

Canvas Gallery is a bar, art gallery, music performance space and coffee shop that has tried several methods to throttle free Wi-Fi use in response to some awkward situations, like laptop users listening to music on headphones while sitting directly in front of a band that was performing.

"People are kind of tired of the laptops," said the manager, Jenny Hay. She said Canvas Gallery experimented with no-Wi-Fi weekends, then went back to full-time availability before deciding last week to set hours of use that end at 5 p.m. weekdays and 2 p.m on weekends.

Ms. Hay said Canvas also tried creating the equivalent of a smoking section for laptop users, but quit after finding that customers moved the signs designating those tables. Ms. Hay said she was still eager to have Wi-Fi users but at appropriate times of day.

Samovar Tea Lounge, also in San Francisco, tried several strategies to discourage lingerers; it was previously an Internet cafe, and some of the expectations from that time remained, said Jesse Jacobs, a co-owner. "When you show up here and there's row upon row of laptop users, it just kind of kills the mood," he said. The store disabled its electrical outlets at one point, but customers did not like it. Mr. Jacobs also tried turning off the free Wi-Fi at busy times, but that left some customers confused as to when the service was available.

Mr. Jacobs said the strategy most recently adopted for dealing with a lingering Wi-Fi user is to have staff members ask, extremely politely and with increasing frequency, whether the patron needs food or tea. "By connecting with them, it's a rare time that there's a problem," Mr. Jacobs said. Ms. Strongin, the Victrola owner, recognizes she cannot force patrons to be gregarious. "Not everybody wants to talk to someone else in the cafe," she said.