Cafe’s Dilemma: Can You Offer Free Wi-Fi and Still Sell Lattes?

Do you ever feel the guilt-stare from a barista as you’re sitting in a cafe enjoying its free wireless? The cheapest patrons will nurse a coffee for three hours, while many will cave at the rate of roughly one beverage (or baked good) per hour.


Rather than guilting e-freeloaders (which puts strain on customer-barista relations), some cafes ban laptops or charge for internet access. But according to one study, that’s a bad business move.

A Dutch cafe has taken a sort of middle ground. Its baristas don’t pressure patrons to spend more, and its internet is still free. But the cafe frequently changes the name of its wireless network to things like:




Would this annoy you or perhaps make you laugh and buy another brownie?

What is proper etiquette as far as how much you should spend at a café while using its free internet?

Here’s another café-laptop dilemma: what do you do with your laptop when you have to use the restroom?

(Hat tip: Mike M.)


@ #24 - Thanks Michael for the help. With your comment in mind, I have a few more questions:

Is etiquette a good in the economic sense, as in it can be sold and traded in the marketplace (like other kinds of goods)?

Or do you mean that it is just something good simpliciter? If it's the first, I'd like to know more - I have never viewed etiquette as a commodity; if it's the latter, then there's a much deeper problem (from a philosophical/sociological standpoint, amongst others).


Easy solution, print a code on the cup that expires after a reasonable amount of time after its used to log into the network, and make really friendly interface.


@60 Etiquette can definitely be traded. Every time a parent gives their child a chocolate bar for behaving well at grandma's that is what they are doing. Trading chocolate for proper behaviour.

On the market I think it is more expected than explicit. When you buy a drink in a bar it is generally part of the deal that you will behave yourself on the premises and if you don't offer that along with your money then once this becomes clear no more trade will occur.

Not every bar chooses to follow this practice of course.

So the question here is whether nursing a coffee for hours while making free with the wifi counts as behaving yourself on the premises.


Well, I would buy stuff at pretty regular intervals, but not out of any etiquette. I like to snack while I work, and cafes are awesome for this snack-work combo.
Also, baristas love me.

real barista

a manager that's responsible for the monthly numbers is the only person that would be annoyed by a wi-fi hog, and most managers only work 7-9 hour shifts, usually in the morning--leaving about another 8-9 hours attended only by a hourly-waged assistant manger or trusted barista (i've worked for two different coffee companies in four different coffee houses).

baristas receive an hourly wage and a tip-share. more purchases means more work for the barista. if you want cheap extended coffee shop hours without the "guilt trip," show up in the afternoon when the manager is about to leave, or has left. buy a drip coffee (minimal work for the barista AND is dirt cheap) and let the barista see you tip a dollar. if you've presented a small workload for the barista and included a tip, enjoy the most comfortable seat until close with no "guilt."


Buying an item every hour isn't that unreasonable. We'll say an average item costs about $7. Table turnover is probably far greater than $7/hour if you weren't there to use the free wireless. Students, go to the library to study, trust me you'll be much more productive. Adults, get an office.

Nate C.

I have a semi-related question:

Of these cafe wi-fi users, why do they choose the cafe in question? How many are there because they don't wish to pay for internet in their homes? How many are there because they like the atmosphere? How many are there because it's a convenient location?


There's a local coffee shop in my hometown that has free wifi, but you need a password. They change it every three weeks or so. But I always compensate for being there by not doing something high bandwich (like playing WoW or abusing Youtube which some people do on the timed access computer that's provided) and I usually buy two or three of the higher priced coffees.


The local internet cafe that I visit placed blank faceplates over all of their outlet covers about 6 mos ago. As a laptop user with a good battery, I make sure to enter with a full charge, but for some whose machines aren't as energy-efficient, I could see that being a pain.

I like the idea of redirecting visitors to a portal page every hour or so with an in-store advertisement. It serves as a gentle reminder that you're not in your living room, while not forcing you to purchase.


"The internet costs money"....come on. You can set up a broadband connection in any cafe for $30-50 a MONTH. The NAPKINS and STIR STICKS probably cost them as much! And you don't see them charging for those, do you? The outrageous prices businesses charge for internet connections ($10 an HOUR in many places) anger me so badly that I am starting to avoid places which do so. I don't mind paying a token amount ($1-2 a day) for internet, or to buy some (usually WAY overpriced) food or drink, but public wifi has turned into a huge scam- for your $10/hr you usually get a crappy connection.


Wifi isn't the cost, electricity is. In New York City, where people's apartments are tiny and cafes are important to not going insane, a small place can run up $$$ quickly. The cafe across the street from my apt building on the LES would fill up by 8:30 and these people would still be there at noon, still nursing the same cup of coffee, still pulling down the cafe's electricity. People who came in for a cup of coffee and a chance to read the paper had no luck. There was ZERO turnover.

It's NOT a 'sunk cost' for electricity.

There is also the inconvenience of cables snaking around the floor and patrons fighting for outlet space.

I wrote my first novel in a cafe in Seattle. I would buy a coffee, a pastry, and a water or a juice over a 5-6 hour span.

in new york city, most of the coffee shops have CLOSED DOWN. the one i mentioned above, uptown/downtown.. shall I go on?


I think this really depends on the cafe culture in your city/town. In Seattle, it is totally acceptable to buy one cup of drip coffee, and stay for hours, using the free internet and table space. I never thought that it was something to feel guilty about, or thought that I need to pay some sort of toll by buying more than one cup of coffee or a cookie. I went to the library maybe 10 times to study during all my four years, but I had a place in my weekly budget for coffee and snacks, and wrote many a paper at Bauhaus on Capital Hill. I almost felt it was an injustice if a coffee shop tried to charge for internet, and I would avoid it out of principle (but none of them in Seattle ever did, except for Starbucks for a while).

Now I live in Chicago, and I don't find the same attitude. There aren't as many neighborhood coffee shops, and even the ones I've been too don't seem to have students or people who can work from their computers, staying for hours on the free internet.

If you need to use the bathroom, you ask a neighborhood to watch your stuff. Or they sell laptop cables you can use to lock your machine up with.



Jim, decent broadband for a business is more than $50/month.

That said, if having wifi leechers is such a big problem, just cap the wifi speed. Enough so email and small website browsing is fast, but no one's going to be watching HD movies from netflix.

Note Taking Nerd

I like that alarm idea for when you need to relieve your PC muscles.

A free way I've found is to ask the person sitting next to me to play bodyguard for me.

I believe there was a social behavior study done by Robert Cialdini, Author of Influence: The Power of Persuasion where they tested whether people would stand by their commitment to watch your stuff for you if asked.

The study revealed that the vast majority of individuals who agreed to stand guard, stepped up and said something when a totally different person who was part of the study went to interfere with the lonely objects (if memory serves me right, they did the test on a beach.)

I believe most people are good and will honor their commitment to look out for your stuff if you ask.

Especially if others around observe you asking them.

As for people bumming wi-fi in a hot joint with limited seating and not reciprocating... you gotta go.

If business is dead and no ones there, who cares?

Note Taking Nerd



If you spend $5-6 a day at a coffee shop mainly for the "free" internet, you could easily get a wireless laptop card for $60 a month and save yourself $60+ a month - not to mention the health benefits of not ingesting all that sugar, caffeine, cream, etc. (come on, you know it's in there).

Then you can "loaf and loiter" anywhere you'd like (or just sit in the coffee shop with your wireless card and not buy anything just to stick it to the man...).

Besides, I don't know what coffee shops everyone has been to recently, but I haven't seen one lately that's hurting for business. Most of them have plenty of to-go traffic to offset the loafers that sit there for hours.


I have no problem buying something every hour or so while I'm using "free" wifi. The internet costs money, and most of these places are small businesses. If your butt takes up a seat for several hours, thats a loss to the owner. There is nothing more irritating when I walk into my local coffee shop (granted, owned by a friend) and see students on their laptops "studying" or local high school kids freeloading around and not buying something.



there should be a code/pass on every receipt allowing 30 min of data, should you want more you buy something else and get another receipt. Or just get a bigger sitting room. :) I also dont mind the "frugal flash notices".


If it were becoming a problem, I'd charge for wifi. Maybe the price of a latte for the first hour with each additional hour a dollar. With the purchase of wifi I'd give the person as much free drip coffee as they'd like.


If they want people to move along, just make the seats less comfortable. No need for name-calling.


I just find a coffee shop where they don't mind how long you stay. Brugger Bagels posts on its website that wifi is free, and stay as long as you like! Other cafes note specific hours when they are busy and ask you to limit your stay. Otherwise, I agree with comments above that it's not really our problem to deal with. If a coffee shop is going to make me buy more... I'll just go to the next coffee shop down the street and buy a cup or two a day from them instead. I never, for instance, go to Starbucks or other cafes that charge. Why bother?