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San Francisco Free Wi-Fi Gradually Eliminated At Hottest Cafes

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THE END OF FREE WIFI
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At The Mill, San Francisco's hottest new cafe, customers can grab a steaming cup of world-famous Four Barrel coffee or belly up to the "toast bar" for a crispy slice of freshly baked bread slathered with almond butter.

But one thing patrons will have to seek elsewhere: wireless internet.

That's because The Mill, which opened up in a cozy storefront along a rapidly gentrifying corridor of Divisadero Street last week, provides neither Wi-Fi nor convenient power outlets near its seating area.

This deliberate move may come as a surprise in the technology-fueled hub of San Francisco, which prides itself on being constantly connected, but The Mill's decision to actively discourage laptop use is part of a growing trend among San Francisco restaurateurs to reclaim the coffee shop as a place for face-to-face conversation among caffeinated human beings instead of just being a remote office for people silently tapping away on their laptops.

Jodi Geren, co-owner of Four Barrel Coffee, of which The Mill is an outgrowth, explained that the decision not to offer Wi-Fi was a no-brainer based on her previous experience at Four Barrel's popular storefront in the Mission District.

"We don't have Wi-Fi or outlets in our...[other location] and that's been open for four years," she explained. "We made that choice deliberately, it's created a really great atmosphere. You'll see people sharing tables, drinking coffee and just talking."

"In this day and age, people can bring their wireless with them anywhere, so there are still definitely people on their computers," she added. "But we like to have a nice mixture of people talking and people using their laptops."

And it isn't just new places shunning Wi-Fi -- some are actively pulling back on their wireless offerings.

Recently, local neighborhood cafe chain The Grove, which boasts four Bay Area locations, posted signs around their restaurants notifying customers it would no longer be offering the free Wi-Fi service it previously gave out with any purchase. Regular customers were encouraged to talk to employees about the reasoning behind the switch.

"As a convenience to quickly check email...for a while we offered Wi-Fi. Over time a trend grew that began to dull the ambience, drive away new guests, cause tensions--well, the opposite of the signature experience we endeavor to provide," said The Grove co-owner Kenneth Zankel in an email to the Huffington Post. "The decision was not made lightly. We discussed the topic on and off for 3 or 4 years."

Even down in Silicon Vally, the beating heart of the tech revolution, some cafe owners are getting fed up with the ever-present army of laptops crowding out space they would much rather reserve for actual human interaction. The Los Angeles Times reports:

About 30 miles south in Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley's technology industry, the Coupa Cafe offers some of the fastest Internet service in town. But even this popular hangout for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists bans Wi-Fi on weekends to make room for customers sans laptops.

"We had big parties or family groups who wanted to eat but had no room," said Jean Paul Coupal, who runs the cafe with his mother, Nancy. "They were getting upset about it. They felt the whole place was being taken over by techies."

For neighborhood spots like The Mill and The Grove, this decision isn't solely about encouraging a specific type of dining experience, it's also good for their bottom lines. People just looking for a place to work that's neither home or in the office often spend hours nursing a single cup of coffee. In a dense urban environment like San Francisco, where space is an infinitely valuable commodity, discouraging laptop jockeys from crowding out other customers doesn't seem like all that bad of an idea.

Declining to offer Wi-Fi worked well for La Boulange--a San Francisco-based French bakery chain that quickly grew to 20 locations all around the Bay Area before being swallowed up by Starbucks last year.

Even so, going without Wi-Fi is still a risk in an environment where internet access is widely expected. "This was not about money," Zankel explained. "We were prepared to be hurt financially if necessary rather than be who we aren't. We are 'Art, Meet, Commerce' - when the 'Art' is gone and it's just 'Commerce,' its not something our Grove family wanted for ourselves."

Keeping a flood of computer users out is another way neighborhood cafes can differentiate themselves from the big guys. Just as these smaller cafes eliminate or restrict internet access, many ubiquitous international chains have moved in the other direction. In 2010, both Starbucks and McDonald's began offering free, unlimited Wi-Fi to their customers.

"At our cafes, we don't offer skim or two percent milk and our menu is really simple. So we're always having that conversation with our customers as to why we do things the way we do things," explained Geren, whose Mission location snarkily banned "taking about hipster topics" and posting pictures on Instagram in a sign that recently went viral. "Everyone seems to be pretty understanding about not having Wi-Fi."

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