Coffee shops were once hubs for people to socialize over a hot cup of joe, but with Wi-Fi becoming a staple at most coffee shops, it’s become more common to see people typing away behind a laptop screen instead of enjoying a conversation.
But now some coffeehouses have taken a stand by turning off the Wi-Fi in an effort to get themselves back to their roots of bringing people together.
“I do think there’s a big market out there for not having it,” HotBlack Coffee co-owner Jimson Bienenstock says of Wi-Fi. “We just feel there’s a need to not have it.”
And with that, he stumbled across a goldmine. His 18-month-old Toronto coffee shop has since flourished after unexpectedly drawing international attention earlier this year once word got out that it doesn’t offer Wi-Fi.
Before the national and international spotlight, Bienenstock says customers slammed his business online for not having Wi-Fi — with HotBlack even averaging a one star review on Trip Advisor at one point — but now those complaints have been drowned out by those who prefer the experience his café offers.
“We still have people there three, four, five hours just kind of hanging out and chatting,” he says of his clientele. “We have people who come in just to chat and not even to have coffee or anything just to be part of the local social community.”
Skipping Wi-Fi isn’t the only way HotBlack has made it difficult for the usual laptop crowd. The coffee shop also uses smaller, laptop unfriendly counters, and you can forget about charging up as electrical outlets are sparse, too.
Despite those moves, HotBlack hasn’t banned the devices outright, and going Wi-Fi-free may be more ahead of the curve than you might think.
“Wi-Fi, by definition, is going to go the way of the dinosaur shortly,” Bienenstock says. “It’s becoming less and less important as people have unlimited data or are working more intelligently.“
The ubiquity of mobile data still hasn’t stopped most of the big chains from offering Wi-Fi and effectively making it a service customers expect.
McDonald’s, which has recently pushed aggressively into the coffee market with its McCafé line, says it offers free and unlimited Wi-Fi at almost all of its 1,400 restaurants in Canada, but unlike HotBlack, it believes Wi-Fi is an integral part of its business.
“McDonald’s believes that offering free Wi-Fi is one more way that our restaurants continue to be family-friendly destinations for today’s modern guests,” the chain said in a statement.
Starbucks offers free Wi-Fi at all company-owned stores in Canada and holds a similar view on the service.
“We believe a coffeehouse should be a welcoming, inviting and familiar place for people to connect, whether it be in person or digitally,” the company said in a statement.
HotBlack is well aware that it’s going against the grain with its move, and Bienenstock says he’s lost count of how often customers request to jump on the shop’s Wi-Fi.
“There’s never a day that someone doesn’t ask for our Wi-Fi password,” he says. “Oh my God. I don’t know how many times.”
HotBlack is far from the only coffee shop without Wi-Fi. Local site BlogTO has compiled a list of other cafés in Toronto without Wi-Fi as well, but with none receiving as much attention as HotBlack.
The spotlight his coffee shop has received as a result of the simple move has even caught Bienenstock off guard.
“We’ve been quite astonished by the amount of local and international press that we’ve had. For us, it seems natural,” he says. “It was simply a small part of just having a nice, little coffee shop and then it’s blown up like this.”
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