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Internet exploits: All-day Wi-Fi users a problem for some coffee shops

coverNowadays, coffee and wireless Internet go hand-in-hand; you can’t really have one without the other.

It is an expected amenity at coffee shops and bakeries. With the purchase of a coffee, tea or cinnamon bun, the customer is permitted to use the business’ Internet. It is so common that it has almost become a right — like free speech or the ability to vote.

However, like other rights, it can be abused. Although there are no set parameters on how much Internet time a cup of coffee buys, most can agree that a singular purchase does not validate someone occupying a café table from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“They are using your place as an office,” said Heidi Dunkelberg, a co-owner of Coffee Cup Café in Clyde. “It is a problem, and you don’t know how to approach it. You don’t want to be rude.”

Coffee shops and cafés everywhere have struggled with how to balance the enjoyment of being a gathering place for consumers and the feeling of being taken advantage of.

“They will buy a coffee, and they stay here from open to close,” said Jo Gilley, co-owner of Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville. “Everybody’s having an issue with it.”

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When asked if people camp out all day at Blue Ridge Books, Gilley let out a huge sigh and a “yes.” Sales people would come with a large rolling briefcase full of work paraphernalia and loudly make calls to clients. Gilley said workers simply ask them to keep their voices down, adding that they don’t mind people spending some quality time at the store as long as they buy something.

“We just keep our fingers crossed that they will like their experience and buy a book,” Gilley said.

The real nuisance for Blue Ridge Books is parking. There are only about five spots right outside the shop’s door. Occasionally, someone will sit outside the store in his or her car and use the Internet rather than coming in. That keeps elderly patrons who might struggle to walk from having a short and straight jaunt to the bookstore’s doors. The parking issue is the problem that gets Gilley’s goat — not so much people occupying its booths or comfy chairs.

For Blue Ridge Books, the solution was to institute a password. Unlike some places that keep the same password, which would allow people to log onto the Internet during later visits without making a purchase, the combination coffee shop and bookstore changes its password daily. Only the workers know what it is on a given day. Blue Ridge Books started requiring the password a little less than a year ago and has not received flack for doing so.

“Most people are very nice about it,” Gilley said.

Although the bookstore has problems all its own, Dunkelberg said the Coffee Cup Café was in a very particular quandary when it came to long-staying guests.

The Clyde-based café not only acts like a coffee shop but also a popular lunch venue. The eatery sits right near MedWest-Haywood, making it an easy stop for hospital workers or patients. But, it was also a hangout for people who needed Internet access.

People would spend $1 on coffee and claim a table for hours, leaving customers who planned to spend more without a seat.

“We had one guy who used to come in here and take up a booth all day,” Dunkelberg said. But, “That ended when we quit supplying the Wi-Fi.”

Coffee Cup Café shut off its wireless Internet from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. — its hectic rush hours. People who were there only to use the Wi-Fi were out of luck. That left the tables for paying customers.

“It would make them mad, but you know, I had somebody who just spent $15 on lunch, and they don’t have a seat,” Dunkelberg said.

And on some occasions, people would come to the café at 4:30 p.m. — 30 minutes before it closed. Eventually, workers would have to ask them to leave. Some were nicer about it than others, Dunkelberg said.

“It gets to the point you have to run them out,” she said.

What was particularly distressing to Dunkelberg from a safety standpoint was when she would drive past her business and see people sitting on the porch after hours using the Internet.

“It is just very unsettling and very imposing,” Dunkelberg said.

When the Internet became more trouble than it was worth, Coffee Cup Café got rid of it altogether, an act which Dunkelberg doesn’t regret.

“We don’t miss it at all,” Dunkelberg said.

The lack of Internet access does not keep people away.

“People still come here and have little meetings,” Dunkelberg said. “They know up front they have no Wi-Fi.”


A place to hang

Coffee shops and cafés are unique in that few other businesses are expected to give something away for free or for the cost of a cup of coffee. They provide a valuable service to individuals who might not have access to Internet otherwise or simply those who want to escape the confines of their house where they spend a large portion of their day.

An escape is exactly what Jess Dunlap looks for each time she packs up her iPad, leaves her house and heads to Blue Ridge Books. The 31-year-old recently moved to town from York, S.C., to spend her days toiling away on a novel or screenplay.

“It’s kind of structured here,” Dunlap said. “There are a lot of distractions, but at the same time, it’s a lot less distracting than home.”

It can be trying for anyone but the strong-willed to work at home. There are so many distractions — furniture needs dusting, floors need sweeping and dishes need washing. Even silence can be distracting, said Dunlap, who requires some form of white noise in order to focus — making the dull noise of a coffee shop preferable.

“My house is just super quiet,” Dunlap said. “And, there is caffeine.”

Dunlap said she liked Blue Ridge Books’ atmosphere, which leads to more productivity.

Unlike the horror-story customers who park themselves in a booth or at a table for the entire business day and buy only a cup of coffee and talk loudly on their phone, Dunlap spends about four hours at Blue Ridge Books most days and feels self-conscious about only purchasing the minimum.

“I try to buy two or three cups, and I park down the street,” Dunlap said, adding that she recently bought two copies of a devotional as stocking stuffers for Christmas.


A mobile office, with coffee

Dunlap is by no means the only person to use Blue Ridge Books as a workplace. Just that day, a man sat a couple booths ahead of her with his headphones in, typing on his computer. Another man sat in the booth next to her with his computer, suitcase and Bluetooth headset.

Nor is Dunlap the only writer to find comfort inside a coffee shop.

“We have definitely had people write books here, which is cool,” said Courtney Hall, manager of Panacea Coffee Shop in Waynesville.

The coffee shop has not had many problems with people posting up residence all day, but it is in a bit of a different situation given its size. Panacea is at least twice the size of most coffee shops and cafés in the area.

“I think that we have enough space that it’s not that big of a deal,” Hall said.

Most of the people who use the Internet there are regulars who would be customers no matter what, she said. However, the Internet service can be finicky at Panacea, and Hall said they used to have people who would become rude if the wireless went out. But, she said those individuals don’t visit Panacea anymore.

Customers will still bicker amongst themselves over Panacea’s only three power outlets, Hall said, but it is not a major issue.

Panacea does not have many power outlets simply because of the age of the building, but at least one major coffee shop chain has actually limited the number of outlets it has to prevent customers from overstaying their welcome.

Last year, Starbucks in some locations covered its outlets to prevent people from spending all their time parked at a table. The chain said that such drastic measures were only used at select, highly trafficked stores in big cities like New York.

Unlike Starbucks, one Sylva coffee shop owner actually enjoys when people stay all day.

“I don’t know if I have a common take on this,” said John Bubacz of Signature Brew Coffee Company. “I love having people sit around.”

As long as they purchase something, Bubacz said he is happy to have people linger — even if they only add a couple bucks to his bottom line.

Signature Brew Coffee Company is a small shotgun-shaped building with its main collection of seating at the front and a row of small tables lining the wall opposite the coffee bar. Bubacz said the limited seating promotes more interaction among his customers and creates a friendly, community atmosphere. In fact, he often sees strangers sharing a table if the coffee shop is particularly full.

During the recession, Bubacz actually called the row of tables “unemployment row.” People would spend entire days there applying for various jobs.

“I don’t know how many people I have seen get jobs here,” Bubacz said.

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