Restaurant Industry Trends

Before the current digital age, which sees silent freelancers and students populating coffee shops across the country, cafés were social arenas, characterized by a din of voices engaged in lively discussions and intellectual debates. Cafés weren’t frequented for their coffee beans, but for their convivial and dynamic atmospheres. The customer wanted to engage in social interaction, appreciating—but not photographing—an expertly poured cappuccino.

This was a time before digital communications, remote workers and the gig-economy were social norms, and when the concept of “the third space” was widely known. Coined by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg, the third space is defined as “informal gathering places in which people gather between home and work.”

Oldenburg dedicated his life to the creation of quality places within communities. One of his most notable quotes explains the impact third spaces have on society:

“The character of a third-place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends…They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape.”

This social-coffee-house era is best captured by the popular TV series F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Daily, the friend-group meet at their local coffee shop to gossip, be funny, and catch up. What type of coffee they ordered was irrelevant (and in Rachel’s case, the taking of coffee orders even less important)—what mattered was the company they kept.

It goes without saying that today, things couldn’t be any more different. Across thousands of coffee houses in the United States. the familiar hum has been replaced with the clicking of keyboards and the occasional conversation. In some places, it’s just silence in a room full of laptop-gazing customers.

Most Cafés Offer Free Wi-Fi Because It’s Expected from Them

In today’s digital-centered world, the Internet is pervasive. Instagram users upload photos in real-time, emails are frequently checked, and phone calls are made through data-based apps like WhatsApp and Skype. Offering Wi-Fi seems logical for small business owners since Wi-Fi is expected from customers, but is it?

“I think a lot of [coffee] shops think of offering Wi-Fi as being somewhere between offering nice soap in the restroom or offering a kid’s play place,” writes culture writer and part founder of Sprudge Media Network, Jordan Michelman, to the New York Times, “It’s not quite an essential amenity or legally required to open, but it’s nice, it makes customers happy and makes your space feel more like their space.”

Except what restaurant owners, and in particular, coffee house owners, have learned is that free Wi-Fi attracts a certain type of customer: someone who comes for the Wi-Fi, stays for hours, and orders little.

While many cafés and restaurants have adapted to the present technological climate by offering free Wi-Fi, the change in customer behavior is unsettling to some owners. As a reaction to the trend, a small percentage of owners are opening Wi-Fi-free cafés.

Café Owners Keep Wi-Fi Off To Stimulate Social Interaction

If you’re considering doing away with free Wi-Fi at your café, you’re not alone. There are similar owners with similar thoughts, and some are acting on them.

Jeff Excel, co-owns the Fox in the Snow Café in Columbus, OH with his wife Lauren Culle, and has never offered Wi-Fi. He explains that he “wanted to create a shop that was really lively. When you walk in, it’s almost like a giant family gathering.” Having guests stay just to be on their laptops or phones was the opposite of their intentions.

The owner of HotBlack coffee shop, Jimson Bienenstock, wanted the same mood. “It’s about creating a social vibe,” he says, “We’re a vehicle for human interaction, otherwise it’s just a commodity.” Not offering Wi-Fi can be considered a risky business decision, but Bienenstock says he hasn’t had any problems from customers. In fact, his coffee shops are as popular as can be, “You’d have a hell of a time concentrating in our place. There are so many people talking to each other.”

Spurred by the digitally-influenced societal changes, Annie Kostoner decided to open Kibbitznest “to raise awareness about the imbalance between the use of electronic technology and face-to-face communication.” She tells BBC that customers are relieved to find a place that gives them a break from ‘incessant screen use.” In her words, they are thrilled she opened her café.

Should Your Café Be Wi-Fi- Free?

In 2019, mobile phones are like tiny computers. Within minutes, bank transfers can be made, a new level of a game reached, and the opening sequence of the Emmy’s streamed—all this without having to look up from the phone screen once. It’s safe to say that this devotion to digital communication is here to stay. With so much attention dedicated to screens these days, what line should cafes tow concerning free Wi-Fi for customers?

To better understand this concept, we’ve made a short compilation of the pros and cons attached to café Wi-Fi

The Pros of Cafes with Wi-Fi

1. Cash in on steady customers

Think of all those freelancers who are working remotely or about people who still have an office job, but are given the freedom to work from “home”? With free Wi-Fi, these people will flock to you, because they know they can stop in without interrupting their workflow.

2. Nothing beats free word-of-mouth marketing

These regulars are also going to conduct business meetings in your cafe. But they won’t come alone. They’ll bring work colleagues and clients and prospects and collaborators.

3. Get in on social Wi-Fi marketing

Your cafe presents these customers with a login or splash page Customers log in via email or social media to access the free Wi-Fi. The cafe uses this contact info to market their products to these customers.

Cons Of Cafes With Wi-Fi

1. Cafe ambiance could take a hit

Cafes, bistros, coffee shops – these are all social settings where people chat face-to-face. But many of these establishments have transformed from social spaces to quiet places, with people silently typing away on their laptops.

2. Be ready to shell out some cash

For security reasons, your guest Wi-Fi and your cafe Wi-Fi should run on two separate networks – one is public, the other private. We can’t stress this enough.  Two networks are good for keeping your operations safe from hackers. But it’s bad for keeping money in your bank account. You’re stuck paying for the set-up and then monthly costs of both.

3. Be on guard for guest security risks

Public Wi-Fi can open up your guests to hackers who target bank details, account passwords, and contact information from unprotected or less secure networks – bad for customers, but also potentially damaging for your brand.

4. Watch that slower table turnover

While Wi-Fi may lure more customers into your cafe, you’ll likely attract two types of customers, both of whom contribute to slower table turnover and lower overall revenue. The customer who sit for long periods but still order great food and drinks and the customer who only visits for the free Wi-Fi and stays for extended periods while ordering very little.

Whether or not you offer Wi-Fi should be dependent on the type of setting you wish to operate. Your dream might be to attract tech-friendly professionals in your community. In that case, make sure to boost your bandwidth! But if your vision is to operate a social hub, free Wi-Fi might impede that.

It is possible to serve Wi-Fi without it dominating the atmosphere, too one way to do that is to regulate the speed and bandwidth. You could replace your high-speed internet access with a slower one, this way, you don’t push your internet users away but at the same time, you don’t provide all the luxuries needed for camping in your café.