Mar. 5, 2012
BOSTON -- In a sign of the times, your neighborhood café has become an office space. No longer just serving coffee, tea and pastries, coffee shops are a central community meeting place for business, job hunting and work. But this shift isn't without a new cultural tension.
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I’m at a café and I've just fired up my computer to write this story. I’ve patronized coffeehouses for years. But I noticed that when the economy collapsed and thousands were thrown out of their jobs and work cubicles, it become harder to find an empty table. What traditionally had been a community center or public square of sorts has been replaced by individual spaces. The café has become the office.
What the customer wants
At a Starbucks in Brighton, Brendan Latrell and Stuart Powers are cranking out a project on two computers, side by side, like dueling pianists on keyboards. They have a small company called Moving Metrix that advertises on YouTube, and Starbucks is their office. "Because we’re a start-up company we don’t have an office yet, so we often use coffee shops as a place to meet and get work done together. There’s food, free internet, good atmosphere," Latrell said.
For Patty Jacobs, an independent public relations consultant, working alone can bring on the blues. "I find that by being in the café, I’m around a lot of other people, so I’m not so lonely, and I find having other people around me working helps me focus," she said. "And I like the fact that I can have my coffee whenever I want it and take a break if I want and come back."
Brian Epstein, a Tufts University philosopher who does most of his writing in, you guessed it, a coffee shop, said the office café has blurred the notion of public and private.
"There’s been this erasure of the distinction between work and home but it's penetrating outward also. It’s not just that work is coming home. It’s also that our entire lives are now mixing up the public and the private, so when I’m sitting in a café, am I working or am I at leisure? What’s happening is that there is a breaking down of boundaries."
In many ways. In a city where racial diversity in the workplace is in short supply, in the view of many, Lesley student Rachel Laine, researching at Bourbon Coffee in Cambridge, said this is an ideal setting. "Aesthetically this place is very gorgeous. And even the people here are really diverse and so it mirrors the diversity and the aesthetics," she said.
The downsides of "laptop camping"
Now, the two questions that complicate this story….
How much coffee does Laine purchase at Bourbon?
"I don’t purchase coffee here," she said — adding that she didn't feel guilty because she liked Bourbon's baked goods.
And there's also the issue of the customers who come to a café off the clock.
Mark Newall is a senior vice president at Keystone Associates, a large employment consulting firm in downtown Boston. "Sometimes, to be honest with you, I’m a little annoyed when I go into a cafe and I want to sit and read a book or relax and all of the spots seem to be taken up with folks who have iPads and laptops who are busily working away," he said. However, "I do recognize as a profession that it has become a place for people to congregate, a place for people to connect."
Which is why he advises his clients to find a seat at a café ... even if he can’t find one.
Newall said the café is a near-perfect venue for job networking. It’s a bit of wisdom that comes to him firsthand.
"One morning I was waiting in line at a Panera Bread — a café, right — and there was a guy in line who looked over at me and he said, ‘Hey Mark, how are you,' and I looked at him and he and I used to play basketball together," Newall said. "One thing led to another and I ended up working here. He made a job for me and it worked out tremendously."
He tells clients the story "because opportunity comes in the most random places and for me it was in a café."
Designing for the new café culture
Israel Fridman is constructing a brand-new café in Cambridge called Dwelltime, set to open in two weeks. The space is designed with individual tables that can be put together, to accommodate both singletons and groups. There will be free wireless internet … but with a design element to keep the office crowd contained.
"We’re going to have a communal table for all the laptop people and that’s the only electric outlet that you’re going to find here," Friedman said.
Friedman said for the most part he has no problem with customers using the café as an office:
"I think it’s fine as long as it’s done with some regard for the storeowner as well," he said. "I think if you come here and you have an office meeting with two or three other mates and you do nothing but conduct business and not consume, well, clearly, if carried to an extreme that will be detrimental to the business."
Dwelltime has enough space to accommodate "people coming here, doing some of their business and spending a number of hours perfectly comfortable," Friedman said. "So I don’t necessarily see the conflict."
The old school …
Oscar DeStefano, owner of Harvard Square's legendary Caffe Paradiso, did see a conflict. The Italian native had neither an internet connection nor electrical outlets in his café. He was hell-bent against the very idea of the coffee shop as an office.
"The coffee shop is an area where you mingle with people. Not just go there, take your computer and stick two things in your ears. If you want peace and quiet, go to the cemetery. But don’t come to the café," he said in an interview recorded in 2007, after the Harvard location closed and shortly before DeStefano's death.
One former customer, Tom Magliozzi of "Car Talk" fame, remembered DeStefano's struggle against the tide of change in café culture.
"The Paradiso, where we used to hang out, he was paying something like 12,000 bucks a month rent. You got to sell a lot of coffee. Now we’ve got no place to sit down anymore. This is the closest we’ve found, but it isn’t home," he said.
… goes new school
Still, Magliozzi, a coffee connoisseur, has found not one but two replacement cafés: the Algiers in Cambridge and the old Caffe Paradiso in Boston’s North End, run by Oscar's sister Adriana DeStefano-Federico.
She acknowledged that the North End’s changing demographics have turned this old-world café into a high-tech workspace: "You have a different crowd that’s coming in and so you have to accommodate, and we have free internet."
The café as DeStefano-Federico once knew it will likely never be the same again — and she can live with that. But, pointing to patrons sipping cappuccinos near the doorway, she said the Paradiso has also held on to some of the old ways that made Oscar proud.
"We have two or three people starting their own business. You know, the shoe business, and it’s a handshake. So the human contact, the human interaction is still there," she said.
Now the sounds of tradition — the grinding of coffee, arguments over politics and soccer, the clanging of cups and saucers — blend with the tapping sound of fingers on computer keyboards and the muted symphony of the iPad.