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May 3, 2013 6:48 pm
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Silicon notebook: The no-internet café
The final straw for Ken Zankel came last November. He was looking around his café and restaurant, The Grove on Chestnut Street in San Francisco, decorated in warm, woodsy tones with a stone fireplace, writes April Dembosky.
One of his favourite songs came on the playlist, a duet of the U2 song “One”, sung by Bono and Luciano Pavarotti. Usually people’s ears perk when it plays. But not that day.
“It played through and not one person looked up,” Zankel remembers. “Everyone was staring at their laptops.”
After three years of saying he would, Zankel took action. He shut down the WiFi at all four locations of The Grove.
It was a bold move in this technology-obsessed city, where entrepreneurs use coffee shops as offices to launch their start-ups.
Zankel and his wife and co-owner, Anna, feared they would lose business if they stripped customers of their beloved internet rights. The couple are as susceptible to the allures of the internet as anyone else. But they wanted The Grove to be an oasis of conversation and human connection. Instead it was a hall of laptop zombies.
“Someone’s sitting at a table forever, they won’t leave, while other people are walking around carrying food they paid $15 for, and they have nowhere to sit,” Zankel says.
Only a handful of other coffee shops in San Francisco and New York have dared to deprive customers of WiFi in recent years. At Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, WiFi is an essential amenity for customers, whether they are venture capitalists reviewing a pitch, or people surfing dating site OkCupid. Programmers have been known to stand on their chairs here and ask if anyone can help with a coding problem.
“To me, the internet is just part of public space now,” says Eileen Hassi, Ritual’s owner. “It’s really unfriendly to not have it.”
In the end, only a few Grove customers stormed out in a rage when the internet went dark. Zankel reviewed the numbers for the first quarter of the year, and business has remained steady, no worse and no better. The Zankels have even been attracting some new customers – ones who came in when they saw there was actually a place to sit.
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