You can get an espresso at Bread Furst, or a baguette, or a perfect piece of pie. But if you want to get some work done, be prepared: Owner Mark Furstenberg just might ask you to move along.
The James Beard Award-nominated baker sees his Van Ness cafe as a neighborhood gathering place — not a second office for ever more prevalent teleworkers. So during peak hours, when he spots laptop lurkers nursing now-cold cups of coffee and occupying precious table space, he asks them to leave. Politely, of course.
A typical exchange, as he describes it:
Furstenberg: “I’m sorry, this is not your workspace.”
Customer: “What do you mean? I just bought a cup of coffee.”
Furstenberg: “I know, and I’m glad you bought a cup of coffee, and I hope you like the coffee, but other people are waiting for tables.”
Customer: “It’s a public place, isn’t it?”
Furstenberg: “Well, no, actually, it’s not that kind of public place. It’s a place where people come to eat and talk, but it’s not your workspace.”
Customer: “You’re going to decide how I use the space?”
Furstenberg: “Well, yes, actually, I am.”
Furstenberg doesn’t mind if people work in his shop when it isn’t busy, or if they conduct face-to-face business meetings there. It’s the ones he and other cafe owners call “campers” that get to him — you know, the types who buy one cup of coffee, plug in their laptop and earphones and proceed to act as if they own the place, hogging the tables for hours on end. To deter them, he doesn’t offer WiFi. But still they come, with their portable hotspots and their FaceTime and their tablets, undeterred.
“We have this notion that ‘any space can belong to me, and I can do what I want,’ ” says Furstenberg, resignedly. “Technology has made it possible.”
But technology can be a double-edged sword. It allows more of us to telework than ever before, but then we’re, you know, stuck at home — feeling isolated, or distracted, or guilty for not loading the dishwasher or playing with the dog. So we escape to a different location full of different distractions, which fade into the white noise of productivity: steamed milk churning, strangers’ murmurs, ambient music. If the chairs are comfy enough, some of us might stay all day. It feels like home.
Public spaces meant for gathering and socializing, even talking business, have been around for centuries. England’s stock exchange and insurance industry can be traced to the coffee shops of 18th-century London. But in 1989, sociologist Ray Oldenburg, in his book “The Great Good Place,” gave them a name: the third place. If your home is your first place and your office is your second place, the third place is where you go to escape the obligations of the first two. But what happens when the third place becomes more and more like the second?
It might look a bit like Arlington cafe Boccato Gelato. Over the past three years, owner Cristian Velasco grew frustrated with customers who would “buy a Coke, open their laptop, and take up a large area of my couch — 10 square feet of my space — for a Coca-Cola for $1.50 for five hours.” So he put up signs in his restroom advocating proper coffee-shop etiquette: Customers should order something every 60 to 80 minutes, share their tables and not bring in outside food. Tip No. 5 is “Think about leaving the coffee shop.”
But frequent teleworker David James saw potential in Boccato’s comfy couches. He and his business partner, Ramzy Azar, approached Velasco with an idea: Cowork Cafe, a members-only club that rents half of Boccato’s seats on weekdays for workers who want to get out of the house. For $150 a month, members have access to special seating, a small conference room, printers and shredders, unlimited high-speed WiFi and a monthly account with the cafe, so they don’t have to pull out their wallets every time they go up to the counter. The company launched in February and now has more than 30 members.
“We’re trying to develop a business model where the interests” of the coffee-shop owner and the teleworker “are aligned,” James said.
It’s similar to co-working spots WeWork and Cove, but in the same comfortable environment that coffee-shop frequenters have grown accustomed to. And because Cowork Cafe pays rent for the space, guests don’t have to play by Velasco’s posted rules.
“We tell our customers, ‘It’s okay to be here all day, it’s okay to not buy anything if you don’t want to, it’s okay to bring in your own food,” James said. “Nobody has to feel guilty about being there.”
Still, the transition was a little rough. Customers who weren’t willing to pay for Cowork Cafe were relegated to a separate seating area — and even if it happened to be full, they couldn’t sit in the co-work section. Regular customers may use WiFi for only an hour and a half unless they make additional purchases.
“The first couple of months was basically me spending all of my time apologizing to my regulars,” Velasco said. “I got a lot of bad write-ups on Yelp, a lot of aggressive phone calls.”
He understood his customers’ frustrations, but he also hoped that they understood his.
“It’s a two-way street,” Velasco said. “They are in a public space, and it takes money to maintain the space. It’s a mutual responsibility. You have to share, and spend money, to have the place open. You can’t just sit there.”
A common complaint from business owners is that campers act as if they own the place. According to University of North Carolina at Greensboro marketing professor Merlyn Griffiths, they think they do.
The feeling is that “as long as I have something that indicates that I’ve participated in an exchange” — a cup of coffee, or a muffin — “I have a right, quote unquote, to be here,” says Griffiths, who has studied customer territorial behaviors in coffee shops. It creates a sense of “temporary psychological ownership.”
And the result is a power struggle: Owners limit WiFi or ban laptops, as Filter, a coffee shop in Foggy Bottom, did in 2012. Customers strike back with nastiness on social media. And now that you don’t need a shop’s WiFi, thanks to mobile hotspots, a storm is brewing, Griffiths says.
So as new cafes open, they’re trying to predict the weather — and avoid the worst of it.
At the Royal, a newly opened LeDroit Park space offering coffee and Latin American food, owner Paul Carlson offers free WiFi with a two-hour limit. As long as people are purchasing food, he’s okay with letting them linger until about 4 p.m., when the cafe starts to transform into a bar. He won’t kick anybody out, he says; he’ll just send some subtle signals — turning up the music, dimming the lights — to say, Time to pack up the laptops, folks. “Hopefully that will just be an organic transition for our guests,” he says.
Bluebird Bakery founders Tom Wellings and Camila Arango, meanwhile, have advertised their space on social media as worker-friendly — for now. They have lots of room in their wide-open, second-floor pop-up in Prequel, a culinary incubator downtown. But when they move into their permanent Logan Circle bakery, which will be a fraction of the size, they’ll tackle the topic of workers and campers as situations arise.
“We want people to feel comfortable, feel at home,” Wellings said. Having people linger for a while in a shop, Arango said, can “give it life. It doesn’t feel like an empty retail shop.”
Life — and caffeine, of course — is what teleworkers were seeking at Compass Coffee on a recent Monday morning. The Shaw cafe was designed with workers in mind, from the arrangement of chairs to the extra outlets.
“I like that everybody else is working, like, really hard,” said Beth Johnson, a deputy director for an Alexandria nonprofit organization, looking around at more than a dozen people hunched over their laptops. “It’s good motivation.” Johnson works two days a week from coffee shops, rotating among Compass, the Coffee Bar and Blind Dog Cafe, staying about six hours and typically buying two coffees and some lunch.
Nearby, Raegan Rivers was already on her second coffee two hours into her workday. “It’s like your rent,” said the founder of Hopsctch, a three-employee start-up that promotes eco-friendly products. “A croissant and a coffee to support a local business are a lot cheaper than a co-working membership.”
Both Rivers and Johnson said that they appreciate the collaborative feel they get from coffee-shop work, but at least that day, the cafe seemed to be a place where people had come to be alone together. Camping can turn coffee shops into less uptight versions of libraries. The social element can be hit or miss.
“When I go to our space, that’s a cue for me that, okay, it’s time to work,” says Cowork Cafe’s James. “I could see that it could get confusing if you’re going to the same place for co-working and socializing.”
The answer, Griffiths says, may be to renumber our places, or to create a fourth place to fill the gap. “If the third place is morphing into more of a hybrid second and third place, perhaps the fourth place would be a more original third place, where it’s all about socializing,” she says.
Hmm. Don’t we already have a place like that? You know — it’s called a bar.