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How the Hospitality Industry Is Adapting to Laptop Squatters

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Restaurants are becoming de facto internet cafes — and everybody wins

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A man on a laptop sits at a restaurant table. Photo: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Entering Williamsburg’s Glass Hour, at first glance, one can believe it’s just another Brooklyn coffee shop. Seated around an oaken communal table, there’s the familiar scene of students and young professionals furiously typing articles and presentations on their laptops. But upon further exploration, there's more to soak in than the caffeine in one’s beverage.

Amid the palpable levels of stress, stacks of board games and a few foosball tables recall the perks that beckon workers to power off and socialize, a quintessential feature at co-working offices — those increasingly popular working spaces, often used by individuals not employed by the same company, freelancers, or startup employees. Oh, and unlike your normal coffee shop, there's unlimited coffee, tea, and crumb-prone goods like cookies and granola bars.

Glass Hour is America’s first “anti-cafe,” a cultural import from Russia that, at least in New York, embraces the current trajectory of the modern work space. Rather than have customers pay by the cup and justify their stay by continually buying more, laptop rats simply have to pay a rate of five cents per minute. (The first hour, however, is fixed at $6 to make sure customers don’t run off with a 10-cent cup of coffee.)

To Max Grigoryev and Zlata Koshlina, two of Glass Hour’s co-founders, this is the ideal office space for today’s independent workers — a home away from home, but with all the conveniences. “Starbucks isn’t good because of its noise and the over-crowdedness,” said Grigoryev. “The coffeehouse and co-working space mix — people appreciate the quiet, convenient atmosphere.”

A quick weekday survey of any local coffee shop revels the growing independent and startup labor forces. A 2016 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union, a non-profit American organization advocating for freelance workers, found that 55 million Americans — approximately 35 percent of the workforce — are independent workers. Additionally, according to a report from Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a global study conducted by a consortium of universities, 27 million working-age Americans — 14 percent of the workforce — are starting or running new businesses.

Co-working spaces like WeWork and Spaces Works have enjoyed their status as the hip alternative workplace to the bleak, white walled office. But as the concept of an “office” has become less confined to enclosed wall space, and less workers find themselves tied down to a company, the hospitality industry — particularly cafes and restaurants — has begun to accommodate this shift in the labor market.

Coffee, doughnuts, and a computer Photo: David Arts/Shutterstock

In the past decade, coffee shops have evolved from a place where one could lounge and enjoy a cup of joe into a free-for-all wifi hub, making their transition to the modern Internet cafe predestined. (This is not to say that management teams at local independent and national-chain coffee shops have welcomed this change: Many have made attempts to stymie the tide of laptop squatters.) Meanwhile, upscale metropolitan restaurants, with high rents to match their prestige, are packed to the brim during cocktail and dinner hours but sit empty during the day. With a few adjustments — the addition of outlets and more power cords, improved wifi — they too could function as de facto offices of the independent and startup workforces.

David James, the founder of CoworkCafe in Arlington, Virginia, just happened to be one of these independent workers looking for an individualist office space. For over a decade, James, an independent software designer, found it difficult to work at home. But a lack of nearby co-working spaces, as well as the chaos at coffee shops, proved to be significant barriers to a smooth work life.

In 2015, through a collaborative effort with a local cafe/gelateria Boccato, he set up a back-room area that functions as the social workspace that is now CoworkCafe. The business model admittedly differs from Glass Hour in that guests pay a flat fee of $150 per month, coffee and tea is not unlimited, and CoworkCafe doesn’t buy the WeWork model wholesale (you won’t find any socialization outlets like board games, nor stacks of light reading material). But the accompanying $50 food and drink credit can be exchanged for typical café beverages as well as gelato and food from DC’s Julia’s Empanada — pick-me-ups for the company’s wide-array of members, although they have to leave the private co-work space to purchase said consumables at the front counter.

“We try to have something that’s very open and has lots of different kinds of people,” James said. “Freelancers, teleworkers, people with small one-to-two person companies, attorneys — it’s very, very diverse.”

While cafés developing into work spaces is a seemingly natural progression, companies like the New York-based startup Spacious, co-founded by Chris Smothers and Preston Pesek, are attempting to alter the use of a space entirely: repurpose restaurants into shared offices. Pesek, formerly an employee at the real estate management firm Fortress Investment Group, explains that Spacious operates as a middleman. The company facilitates the “renting” of space at restaurants that predominantly operate during cocktail and dinner hours but are either closed during the workday, or are designed in such a way that they can accommodate a separate social workspace for the laptop crowd. Customers sign up for either a monthly membership or purchase a day pass.

Photo: Paul Crispin Quitoriano/Eater NY

After checking in with one of Spacious’s hosts at the establishment, all guests have to do is simply pull up a chair and get to work. Similar to Glass Hour, members enjoy the perks of unlimited tea and coffee, from Intelligentsia at most locations. And if they get hungry, Spacious users are allowed to order-in from Seamless or UberEats (or order from the menu if the kitchen is open). Pesek noted that some of its partner restaurants like L’Apicio have experimented with “small plates” menus designed exclusively for Spacious members. The company is also considering bartenders for the early afternoon.

Beginning with a test run at New York City’s DBGB in 2015, Spacious has expanded to include a roster of upscale establishments like Public and La Sirena. Signs of early success have spurred expansion plans, which include more New York operations, as well new ones in Los Angeles and San Francisco. “We’re seeing an acceleration in member acquisition — it’s increasing with the number of locations opening,” Pesek said. “I would guess our daily attendance is well over 100 per day across the network.”

Unsurprisingly, the desire for an alternative workspace is not limited to the United States. In Toronto, former event coordinator David King has spearheaded Haven (formerly branded as RNDMWRK), a social workspace that currently operates out of Apartment 200, a bar-lounge. While Haven predominantly operates with a similar premise as Spacious, King seeks to ingrain Haven deeper into the community: He wants to expand into other venues aside from Apartment 200, with plans to include perks like events and workshops that could center to different industries.

“There’s a real ability to get involved in the community, and we can fill these unused spaces with amazing energy,” King said. He later added, referring to the workshop and event plans, “all these little projects are focal points through which people can connect and have cool conversations.”

For restaurants, the benefits aren’t limited to simply collecting membership fees: an added bonus comes during the transition from the office hours to happy hour. “It’s a little revenue,” said Michael Lawrence, the executive director of operations at DBGB’s parent company Dinex Group. DBGB receives a share of the profits from the Spacious partnership, collected from membership and day pass fees. He explains, however, the main perk — one likely shared among other restaurants — is that the program “exposes [Spacious] clients to our restaurant.”

“They’re there for one purpose, and then they end up staying for another,” added Lawrence. “They’re there with coffee in the afternoon and that eventually turns into beer.”

Although socialization and (often times) unlimited coffee and tea may pique some customers’ interest, the obvious draw of the hospitality-office space business model is the cost. A monthly membership to use a shared, non-reserved desk at WeWork, one of the more popular co-working office spaces, runs $220. The cost of a more-expensive monthly membership at these hybrid hospitality spaces runs $200 per month (Spacious is actually less than half of that, at $95 per month).

Many are beginning to see hospitality industry as a new player in the shared economy and are joining the movement. But uniting the traditional co-work office and hospitality space is not palatable to everyone. King explained that not every restaurant and bar saw joining the Haven system as an optimal way to make use of underutilized space. Some management teams would “rather have [their rooms] sit empty than get some revenue,” he said.

Similarly, coffee shops that proffer a community-first ethos prefer to turn off wifi or prohibit laptops at particular hours. New York’s membership-based coffee shop Fair Folks & a Goat (where people pay $35 per month for unlimited coffee, tea, and discounts on food and other products in the store), turns off its wifi on the weekend. According FF&G owner Anthony Mazzei, the synthesis of ideas and collaboration won’t happen if everyone is constantly staring at their screens with headphones covering their ears. “We want people unplugged,” said Mazzei. “That’s how you really connect with others.”

While cafés like Glass Hour claim they encourage overall socialization, Mazzei explained that tourists who want a “New York cafe experience” probably won’t stick around for long if they’re surrounded by frowning individuals concentrating on their screens. Still, if the office was workspace 1.0, and the co-work space was 2.0, Glass Hour’s founders in Williamsburg believe many more coffee houses and restaurants will fall in line as workspace 3.0.

“Eight years ago, people were not ready for this,” said Grigoryev. “Now, people need a completely different experience. The market is ready. You feel more comfortable. You feel freedom.”

Matt Sedacca is a writer based in New York City.
Editor: Erin DeJesus


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