Consultant Michael Gatling has taken the coffee break to new extremes.

Gatling telecommutes from Washington for a criminal justice planning firm in a New York suburb. And although he ostensibly works from home, most days you can find him nestled on a gold velveteen sofa at an Adams-Morgan cafe called Tryst, where he hammers out massive policy reports while sipping a giant cup of coffee.

"Most of the time I'm in a zone," said Gatling, who often spends up to 16 hours at the cafe working and periodically connecting to the Internet so he can check e-mail or zip notes to his bosses in New York. "They have to finally kick me out to close up," he laughed.

Local java joints are rapidly becoming the de facto office spaces for home-based entrepreneurs, telecommuters, freelancers and even corporate citizens looking for an alternative to in-house meetings.

It is not that home-based business people have suddenly decided that getting out of the house is a good idea.

"For a long time, IHOPs and Denny's have been a popular place for home-based businesses to meet, particularly if you go back five or 10 years when you didn't want people to know you were a home-based business," said Gene Fairbrother, a consultant for the National Association for the Self Employed.

But coffeehouses have become ubiquitous in the 1990s, a time of explosive growth in home-based businesses. And so, two trends that helped define the decade met.

The number of Starbucks coffeehouses alone has gone from 84 in 1990 to about 2,000 today; and the number of people working at home has similarly mushroomed. The total number of home offices grew from about 8.7 million in 1989 to 23.8 million this year, according to International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass. In the Washington area, about 11 percent of households are also home to a business, according to the Labor Department.

The rise of telecommuting feeds the trend as well. The same Labor Department study reported that the number of wage and salary workers doing paid work at home nearly doubled from 1991 to 1997.

There has also been a shift to more casual management styles, said Fairbrother, which often means supervisors seek laid-back settings for company meetings.

Dean Torrenga, Starbucks regional director of operations for the mid-Atlantic region, said the number of business people, professors and students camping out at his stores has definitely increased. "It happens at probably every store, every day," he said.

In fact, he added, Starbucks has worked to make its newer stores even more welcoming to these types and others by providing more -- and more cozy -- seating.

"As more and more people work virtually, it seems to me all the more imperative that you find a place where you look forward [to going] . . . that becomes part of the rhythm of work," said Ray Oldenburg, professor of sociology at the University of West Florida. Twenty years ago he coined the term "third place" to describe informal neighborhood gathering places such as taverns -- places that are neither offices nor homes but serve as something in between.

Coffee shops, Oldenburg said, are slowly "coming into their own" as the third-place choice for today's communities.

The Freelance Lifestyle Updated

"I got a cell phone just so I could do this, so I wouldn't have to be stuck at home," said Karen Fox as she sat at Tryst one afternoon, papers and folders scattered around her, laptop and latte within easy reach.

For Fox, a 29-year-old freelance writer who lives about 10 minutes from the cafe, the outing provides much-needed structure. This is her second stab at the freelance lifestyle -- she did it for about six months several years ago and picked up bad habits. So this time, she has established an almost daily routine.

"The good thing about coming to the coffee shop to write," Fox said, "is that I don't sit here thinking, `Maybe I should clean out my closet.' "

Alice Bredin, a New York-based columnist and author of two books on working at home, agrees the cafe routine can be a "powerful tool" in fighting the more common freelancing mistakes.

"Two problems I hear about most are getting started in the morning and ending at the end of the day," Bredin said. For morning dillydalliers, getting a good seat might be motivation enough to wake early and head out to the cafe. And setting up a morning meeting, she suggested, would not only keep one from hitting the snooze button, but also be a great way to transition into work mode.

At the other end of the day, Bredin noted, many people who work at home have a hard time shutting down (after all, there is no evening rush hour to beat). In this case, "whatever you're planning for the last two hours of the day at home, you can do it at the coffee shop."

Fox said she likes the buzz of the other customers -- home office escapees like herself, students and other locals -- but she does try to keep from getting too friendly with other regulars. She wants to resist the temptation of coffee talk. Barring that, she said, the coffee shop is where she gets the most done.

Like Fox, many of the coffee shop teleworkers work alone. "They basically keep to themselves," said Joe Greenlee, manager of the downtown Bethesda Starbucks on Wisconsin Avenue. "They order coffee, plug in their computer and get to work."

Greenlee enjoys hosting these low-maintenance patrons, although they usually do not give him any more business than the average customer. For these people, the background drone is enough to sustain them without actual human contact. "The music, the whir of the espresso machine . . . it almost becomes a rhythm," Greenlee said.

It is the customers who hold meetings with clients and vendors at the store who generate the most business, say most coffee shop owners. Not only do they eat and drink more, but they introduce new people into the shop's culture.

Getting Started at Starbucks

"Starbucks is an entire community," said Rachel Zeskind, founder and president of the online magazine Single Parent and a regular at the Bethesda store.

Some could argue that Single Parent is a Starbucks spinoff. Zeskind, a 26-year-old single parent, started the magazine about nine months ago when she got fed up with the lack of information for single parents in the work force.

A coffee junkie, she made daily trips from her home office to the Starbucks for cafe mochas and became friendly with the staff. In fact, she liked staff member Bryan Beard so much that she offered him a job with her magazine. The 21-year-old Beard now serves as Zeskind's national sales representative. And that's not all that came out of Zeskind's addiction -- she and Beard recently became engaged.

Zeskind has one other employee who works with her in her home-based business. Where did she find him? Yup, Starbucks.

On a recent afternoon, Zeskind and Beard met at Starbucks to go over an advertising strategy before meeting with a potential investor. As she and Beard sat brainstorming, the third office mate, Vice President of Business Development Sovani Meksvanh, strolled into the store wearing jeans, a short-sleeve shirt and flip-flops. (Zeskind, who believes in dressing formally, was very New York, all in black.)

The three use Starbucks as a place to trade ideas and to hold meetings with photographers, freelancers and vendors. The informal environment seems conducive to brainstorming, Meksvanh said. "[Starbucks] is also a good starting point. . . . You can meet people easily and go off to any of the restaurants nearby."

The store is also a networking center, Meksvanh added, turning to greet a local real estate agent who is another regular. At the same time, Zeskind lingered in line chatting with one of her readers, a single father to whom she was introduced through a mutual friend.

For serious meetings, such as those with potential investors, the group sticks to the less-casual and less-distracting home office, Meksvanh said. In fact, Meksvanh would like to rent a real office eventually -- perhaps when Zeskind and Beard move to Los Angeles, something they intend to do in the near future to be close to content providers (they hope to do more television shows and streaming video on their Web site).

Meksvanh, who lives in Silver Spring, will stay behind and look for more formal quarters. "I tend to think we should have a real office for presence," he said, laughing at how corporate he sounds.

In general, the number of home businesses that move into a real office is "surprisingly small," said Joanne Pratt, author of a forthcoming report on home-based businesses. After two years, she said, only about 5 percent to 8 percent of these businesses leave home.

`The Atmosphere Is Just Perfect'

Frederic Gracia, a loyal customer of the Jolt 'N Bolt coffee shop in Adams-Morgan, likes that cafes offer "neutral ground" for meeting with clients.

"I like to de-cloak people," said Gracia, who holds nearly 15 meetings a week at the cafe.

Gracia, a former Clinton campaign worker, now makes his living helping people who want to invest in pay phones. Gracia advertises in classified ads and on the Internet, where he offers to help people speed up the application process for installing a phone (in Washington, the bureaucratic process can take up to three months).

Gracia typically starts work around 10 a.m. and finishes anywhere between 3 and 7 p.m. His day often involves driving around in his well-worn BMW showing clients potential phone sites or meeting with shop owners to persuade them to put pay phones in front of their stores.

Gracia has been running his business from the Jolt 'N Bolt for more than two years. He owns a tiny office down the street from the shop but he never goes there anymore. Five days a week, typically, he conducts nearly all of his business transactions at the cafe, and also uses it as a place to meet clients before going out on a drive around the city. The Jolt 'N Bolt staff has become accustomed to seeing him pop in and out of the shop until he finally rests at the end of the day to drink a chai, a tea and spice mixture, on his favorite stool overlooking 18th Street.

Coffeehouse meetings can be effective even for people who have access to office meeting rooms. Such "field trips" are especially effective for meetings between co-workers, Fairbrother said. "Even with companies that have offices . . . more of them are saying, `Let's get away from the power of me behind the desk and you in front of the desk.' "

"The atmosphere is just perfect," Gracia said of the Jolt 'N Bolt.

Gracia said he credits Jolt 'N Bolt owner Farooq Munir with much of his success. Last year Gracia bought a house in Northwest Washington's upscale Kalorama neighborhood and invited Munir to a housewarming party where he toasted Munir and his shop, without which, Gracia said in front of the crowd, he might not have been able to afford the seven-bedroom home.

"It was a very sweet thing that he did," Munir said.

Munir and other cafe owners generally feel the coffee shop squatters are a boon for business, especially when they bring other people in with them.

"It's very good for business," said Munir, but added that it depends on the time of year. In the summer, for example, Munir opens up outdoor seating, which doubles the size of his tiny shop.

"The problem is in the winter it becomes so packed," he said, "and if someone buys a cup of tea and sits for six hours, you've lost a table which could have produced 30 or 40 dollars."

Munir has never asked anyone to leave. Churning and burning does not fit in with his casual shop. But he hints to customers on crowded days that space is an issue.

For the most part, those who have made cafes their offices are sensitive to the business concerns of the proprietors and are careful not to ruin their comfy setups by angering the owners or staff.

Lisa Dickey, a freelance writer and editor, goes to the Cyberstop Cafe in the Dupont Circle area several times a week for hours at a time. "I nurse one coffee for a long time," she said, but added, "If I feel conspicuous maybe I'll buy another one."

Luckily, the Cyberstop has an upstairs, "so it's not like the woman behind the counter can give me the evil eye if I sit there too long," she said.

Dickey does not take her digs for granted. The coffee shop is as good as a rented office, she said, "and in this case my rent is $2.50 a day [the price of a latte]."

Gatling, the Tryst-based telecommuter, said, "To compensate for the fact that I'm here so often I leave [the staff] really good tips." And on busy days, Gatling said he does not pull a 16-hour shift. "As I see the crowds come I may leave," he said.

While owners do not market specifically to business people, Tryst owner Constantine Stavropoulos said "things pop up." He noted the large oak table at the front of the store that some of his regulars have dubbed "the conference table."

"Some people will actually reserve it," he said; one group even called a month in advance to reserve it for a business meeting.

One group of employees from Britches of Georgetown held an all-day meeting at the table, complete with flip charts placed nearby.

Stavropoulos has offered one networking group of female business owners a flat fee of $10 a person for an "endless supply" of coffee and doughnuts. The group has met at the shop twice and Stavropoulos expects them back for their next quarterly meeting.

Then there are the subtle things Stavropoulos has done that make the shop conducive to doing business. For example, there are 13 speakers in various nooks around the large, open room. "If a group of students or business people sit down in one area, we'll turn the speaker off so they can talk," he said.

But sociology professor Oldenburg offers a cautionary anecdote to coffeehouse operators. "There was a fairly large coffeehouse that started from scratch and attracted the artists and others and it became very successful," he said, "and eventually it led to the gentrification of the area, which led to the death of everything it tried to be."

The very funky nature of coffee shops such as the Jolt 'N Bolt, which displays works by local artists, is a delicate balance that can tip if too much is done to cater to one crowd over another, Oldenburg said.

"The French had great third places," he noted. "The beauty of the bistro was it accommodated all sorts of things -- you could socialize, read a book, write a book. It all fit together quite nicely."

That ambience is something that Gatling says could never be replicated in a sterile office setting. For him, the coffee shop routine is the best way to work. "You set it around your life schedule," he said. "I don't understand how a lot of the people who sell office space are going to stay in business."

COFFEE KLATCH TIPS

Here's some advice for those who prefer to work at the local cafe, from Alice Bredin, author of "The Home Office Solution" and "The Virtual Office Survival Handbook":

Don't meander. "One of the ways you can really waste time is just moving yourself from place to place, kind of like when you're working on a project and you decide you should be at the kitchen table and spend a half hour moving there." Bring everything you need to do your work and then stay there until you finish what you set out to do.

Avoid "over-meeting." Having people meet you at the coffee shop might sound like a great way to touch base with vendors, clients, customers and even friends, but just because meeting over coffee is fun doesn't mean it's always productive. Schedule meetings sparingly.

Shift locations. If you find yourself becoming too friendly with the regulars at one cafe, you might want to move to another. "You don't necessarily want to have 15 minutes of catch-up chat with the person behind the counter every time you go."

Be discreet. Remember that your fellow coffee drinkers might be interested in your cell phone conversations -- especially if they work in your industry. Same goes for your face-to-face meetings. Yap away, but quietly. "There is a real danger people really do like to listen in."

Facts about folks who run businesses from their homes

(or nearby coffee shops)

Average age: 42

Average annual household income $56,800

Completed college and post-grad education: 36%

Have children under 18: 49.6%

Percent male: 54%

Own home: 73.5%

Number of home office households in 1995: 18.7 million

Number of home office households in 2000*: 26.0 million

* Projected

Source: International Data Corp.'s Work-at-Home Survey, 1998

CAPTION: Rachel Zeskind, president of online magazine Single Parent, and Bryan Beard, her national sales representative and fiance, meet at Starbucks in Bethesda.

CAPTION: Frederic Gracia has been running his business from the Jolt `N Bolt in Adams-Morgan for more than two years.

CAPTION: Freelance writer Karen Fox uses her laptop and cell phone at Tryst in Adams-Morgan. She is surrounded by other customers, many of whom are home office escapees such as herself.