Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cafés to NYers: get your own damn wifi, chairs

Rather than taking the bait and responding to the 20-something article, I'm saving my rant for another NYT trend piece: coffee bars in NY have decided it's too pedestrian and bourgeois to have seats. And so, in keeping with their Victorian-hipster image, they've invested in mutton-chops and vests for the staff rather than wireless.

Not sure why the Stumptown in Ace - which happens to have the city's best iced coffee - is included in the piece. Yes, the coffee's served at a bar, but anyone who wants to can take that coffee to the adjacent, comfy-seat-filled hotel lobby, get a wifi code from the front desk, and park. Meanwhile, I'm not shocked that Café Grumpy - home of the $12 coffee and regular coffee drinks so expensive that I once went to their Park Slope location after tutoring nearby, judged that the iced coffee would set me even for the day, and left empty-handed - is on the new-ways-to-rip-off-the-gullible bandwagon.

It's reasonable, on their end, that coffee places wouldn't want patrons to hog seats for hours on end for the price of a $1.50 coffee, and it's annoying for their other patrons when Mr. Sweatpants is checking his Facebook account for the 50th time from one of the place's three tables. Why can't they just come out and say this?

Instead, it's all about how "Italian" and "convivial" it is to not be able to sit down while having a coffee. Which is such a load of bunk. It's much cheaper in Paris to get a coffee at the bar (where there are often, I should note, comfortable enough bar stools that if you're alone you might as well), and of the many, many, many, many, many, many such coffees I've had in that situation, I've witnessed minimal conviviality, and not been involved in any personally. Your chances of ending up in a random conversation are greater while walking down the street, or in the allegedly silent areas of the BNF. Nor would I want to make plans with people to meet up just so that we could stand for three minutes, have a coffee, and leave.

To be fair, it's a tough concept to sell: 'Here, please, keep spending $4 on your lattes, but be uncomfortable while doing so.' They can't exactly market it as a return to a slower-paced existence, because it's all about getting customers to leave as soon as possible. And the difference between outside-coffee and brewing some at home is mostly the atmosphere - remove that and why, exactly, are we going to coffee shops in the first place? Drinking coffee at a bar is just a more awkward version of getting one to go. The only possible advantage I can see is that it means fewer disposable paper cups.

What I predict - and you heard it hear first - is that New Yorkers will be seeing coffee shop patrons, laptops open at the coffee bar, trying desperately to pick up a signal from nearby apartments.


Isabel Archer said...

For a long time, I've thought it would be efficient for coffee shops to simply let patrons pay rent directly for tables. No need to pay for another coffee, when it's just the cool table that the patron wants! Yet nobody wants to upend the tables= free norm. Growl.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

This is, in effect, what the bar vs table price distinction at cafés in Paris tries to do, but that's an interesting idea, to make it that much more precise. I think it would work well in the coffee-shop-as-office coffee shops but not if, say, you're going to one to meet a friend. Say you're friend's late, and you sit and read while waiting. Who pays "rent" for that portion of the time? What if you're meeting several people? It seems potentially awkward to monetize the experience to that degree - like negotiations when the bill arrives but more so. Maybe what coffee shops could do is charge different prices for different kinds of chairs, but with more than the bar vs table binary? Like, a giant, plush, sitcom-ready chair could make a coffee $4, a chair with table-as-desk for $3, and on down?

Britta said...

I think the key element between having a chat with friends or browsing a paper (i.e. things that make your coffee shop nice for customers) and sitting in there for 8 hours working or studying (i.e. things that are a nuisance for the owner and other customers) is free wi-fi. In terms of striking a balance between repelling customers and providing really cheap office space, I think it's best to regulate wi-fi. Say, comfy free seating but no free wi-fi? Or, 20 mins free with purchase, but then charge for more usage (or simply not provide it). That's a reasonable amount of time for a single person to enjoy a coffee and/or snack and maybe check some e-mails or look up a movie time, but does prevent the person from coming in to do all their work.
I know some people, say, aspiring novelists, or students with textbooks, might still hog the seating, but I think that would cut down on most of the people taking up space.

Oh, and I call bullshit on the $12 coffee. I have a friend who owns a coffee shop and roasts all his beans. They are organic, shade-grown, fair trade, hand roasted in small batches, blah blah, and he charges about $1.50 for a 16 oz cup and makes an absolute killing. He says the mark-up on coffee is insane (even super high quality beans are actually quite cheap to import), and if you could afford to have a small coffee shop and not serve food, you would be doing very well. He actually loses money on his pastries, but sells them to attract people to drink his coffee.
The point is, he sells a nice product at slightly below market rate (his loyal customers actually have told him to raise his prices to Starbucks levels, since his coffee is much much better and they don't want him to go out of business) and still makes money, so I can't imagine what sort of profit would come from a $12 cup of coffee, no matter how rare or "coddled" the beans are.

Miss Self-Important said...

Logistical question: How can I have a conversation with more than one friend at a time across a horizontal counter? What if three or four of us wanted to meet for coffee? At least when you sit at a bar bar, you can attend to inebriation when the conversation shifts three people away from you and you can hardly hear it anymore. Fixating on my latte isn't worth the time.

The article also suggests that people go to coffee shops to have "convivial" conversation with its baristas. Maybe people who want to pick up the baristas do this, but why design the whole place for that purpose?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I've seen variants of restricted wifi - the place I go near the library in Paris offers a free 20 minutes, which is perfect because it's enough for, say, if you've arrived late and need to move your library reservation back an hour. And some cafés in NY have wifi-free hours around lunch time.

"if you could afford to have a small coffee shop and not serve food, you would be doing very well."

Which is precisely what places in NY seem keen to do. There will be, like, a decorative croissant. But I find this kind of hard to believe, that the markup couldn't be huge on baked goods if done efficiently. Those are so, so cheap to make.


I also thought about the difference between a place where alcohol is consumed and... one where it isn't. The fact that bars are (at least in the grad student price range, at least in NY) never "comfortable" isn't a problem because it's a bar. When it's broad daylight, you're alert and looking to be more so, you want the place to be clean, the chairs to be comfortable.

Right! Conversations with the baristas! Who are famous, more than any other service workers, for badmouthing customers as they leave. Worse still is when the customer and barista are getting along swimmingly - it holds up the line, and causes the resentment among customers who aren't friends with the tattooed latte artist and so have to pay for their order. But my real issue with this is that if you're on the socially-awkward or shy side - and, again, there's no alcohol in anyone's system - the forced chit-chat with the hipper-than-thou takes away from the coffee shop experience. Factor in the relationship between barista conviviality and tipping at places where you're not really supposed to tip...

Withywindle said...

We also have Stumptown in various cafes in Brooklyn. I recommend Cafe Iris and Cafe Pedlar.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I don't know Iris, but I've been to Pedlars in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I don't remember finding either Pedlar spectacular - maybe it's something about how the brew the ice coffee at Ace? Whatever it is, it sure can't be found in Paris.