Disconnecting free Wi-Fi at local cafés encourages more communal connections
by Jake Fernberg, Photography Courtesy of Fox in the Snow Café
A silent café, filled with customers quietly sipping cappuccinos, laptops open, eyes glued to the screen as they keep up with their email. While a familiar image in most cafés, maybe even a comforting one for some, Jeff Excell, co-owner of Fox in the Snow Café, considers this to be one of the most depressing sights imaginable. At Fox in The Snow, and other cafés in the area, the staff is taking steps to cut the cords and foster getting back to the way the café experience used to be.
Fox in the Snow Café opened in October 2014, and from the beginning eschewed wireless Internet. Jeff and Lauren Culley (co-owner of Fox in the Snow) say the move was always a “people decision.”
At Fox in the Snow, Jeff and Lauren have designed a café to evoke “the time without internet,” when coffee shops were for meeting up with old friends and not studying for an exam or catching up on electronic correspondence.
This philosophy is apparent in nearly every aspect of the Fox in the Snow experience: beyond the lack of wireless internet, there are many communal tables, lower than normal counters (they never want customers looking up at a barista), and all of the pastries are unmarked, so you have to ask someone behind the counter what sort of goods are on display. In my experience there, the café seems almost Socratic; with more conversation between customers and also between baristas and customers than at an average coffee shop or even any other restaurants we find ourselves in in our day-to-day lives.
Pistacia Vera is a Columbus institution, and while they used to offer free public Wi-Fi to their patrons, in February of 2014 they also cut the cord. As the proprietor of an establishment that revoked a service they had previously offered, Anne Fletcher found herself in an interesting position.
The first thing Anne noticed was a barrage of support from customers, people who had trouble enjoying their “experience when seated next to others ‘doing work’ on their laptops” and were excited to visit the café without the oft-intrusive technology. Anne says part of the café’s reason for making their space Wi-Fi-free was to encourage “tables bustling with food and conversation.” Anne has found breaking Internet connectivity has definitely fostered a lively community of patrons.
Despite the widespread goodwill towards these two cafés, removing a service that seems to be available everywhere you turn these days to invest more fully in enriching a community has caused some blowback. At Fox in the Snow, some customers “have been bummed out” to the point of finding their coffee fix in a place where they can send an email, and Pistacia Vera had a handful of “disappointed” regulars who previously used the shop “as their office.”
Jeff admits that Fox in the Snow is a “difficult place to study,” but that’s not what a coffee shop is for: a coffee shop is for enjoying espresso and pastry, reconnecting with old friends, and perhaps even making new ones. Jeff describes the unique experience of a Wi-Fi-free, community based café best when he told me that he “wants to be here when I don’t have to be here.”