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‘We don’t want to be an office:’ Café owners are pulling the plug on WiFi

When HotBlack Coffee opened in downtown Toronto a year ago, it took a risk few businesses would dare take in today’s online-driven world: it turned off the WiFi.

Christine Lim/HotBlack Coffee/Christine Lim/HotBlack Coffee

When HotBlack Coffee opened in downtown Toronto a year ago, it took a risk few businesses would dare take in today's online-driven world: it turned off the WiFi.

"Every day people come in and ask for it," says Jimson Bienenstock, the café's co-owner.

Still, he hasn't wavered.

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"In the short term, it hurt us," Mr. Bienenstock says. "It took us longer to become established, but once we reached critical mass, it has become a self-fulfilling virtuous circle."

While most cafés offer free WiFi, including large chains such as Starbucks, McDonald's and Tim Hortons, HotBlack is among a small but growing number of independent coffee shops choosing to ditch or limit Internet use. By not offering WiFi, they're hoping to create more of a community atmosphere where people talk to each other instead of silently typing on their computers.

"People have socially taken for granted that the coffee shop is a workplace. We don't want to be an office. We wanted to do it old school and be a social hub," Mr. Bienenstock says.

"It's not because we're trying to drive more business – people say, 'Oh, you're just trying to turn more tables.' That's not true. People sit here for hours. It's about an ambience and a social vibe."

Bows & Arrows Coffee Roasters offered all-day WiFi when it opened its first Vancouver location last summer. However, after a few weeks, owner Drew Johnson started to notice people walking in and then leaving because there was no place to sit between customers working away on their laptops. On one Tuesday afternoon in particular, Mr. Johnson counted 14 people on their laptops on a communal table that seats 26.

"You typically don't sit down by a glowing laptop, or want to," Mr. Johnson says. On other days, the wide-open space would be so quiet, except for the sound of tapping keyboards and the music. The staff would turn up the music so customers wouldn't hear them talking.

Last fall, Bows & Arrows changed its WiFi and laptop-use policy. It shut off the WiFi during the busy dinner and weekend brunch hours and requests that customers working on laptops during those times be seated at the bar.

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"It was very tricky. People weren't necessarily complaining. It was more of an atmosphere thing," Mr. Johnson says. While he says most people understand, "we still piss people off."

Because the business is new, the WiFi will stay, but "if it gets to a point where we feel like we are sabotaging our business by being an open office, we'll have to revisit it," Mr. Johnson says.

The whole industry is struggling with the issue, says Robin Delany, owner of Delany's Coffee House, which has five locations in Vancouver, two of which don't have WiFi.

"It does take away from the ambience and vibrancy of a café when you have a number of tables tied up with one person at a time working on their computer," Mr. Delany says.

Yet, there's a risk to approaching customers seen to be abusing the free WiFi, Mr. Delany says. If a customer gets angry, they can quickly turn to social media to write a negative review.

WiFi is available with no restrictions at all six Jimmy's Coffee locations in downtown Toronto, says Ryan Maloney, the company's director of operations.

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"When people make a purchase, it's always been our philosophy that they can do what they want to do, within reason," Mr. Maloney says.

He says Jimmy's Coffee takes the same approach with someone who spends hours reading a book or catching up with friends at one of its locations.

"We can't pick and choose," Mr. Maloney says. "The nature of the coffee house is there to find that other spot where people can be themselves, do the things they love to do, to connect with others. Over all, that's why I think you'll rarely find a café that restricts that. That said, I can understand why some cafés would."

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About the Author
Contributor

Brenda Bouw is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver. She has more than 20 years of experience as a business reporter, including at The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press, the Financial Post and was executive producer at BNN (formerly ROBTv). Brenda was also part of the Globe and Mail reporting team that won the 2010 National Newspaper Award for business journalism. More

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