Posted by: lrrp | November 9, 2004

Buzz Kill By Joshua Macht

How one editor survived a nightmare of working online in a Starbucks

Starbucks is fine for a quick latte or a sandwich in the afternoon. But with its nationwide Wi-Fi network providing cheap Internet access, the company is making a big push to get you to stay all day. What if you need to hunker down and get some real work done? In desperate need of Web access on a recent visit to Cambridge, Massachusetts, I trudged over to the local Starbucks to jump on their high-speed wireless network. There, alongside a dozen caffeine addicts, small business owners, students and moms, I quickly discovered the pitfalls of actually trying to work in a coffee shop.

For starters, Starbucks hasn’t completely caught on to the ergonomic demands of the 21st century employee. Their seats tend to be either big and cushy or small and rigid. If you haven’t noticed, there’s no Aeron chair in Starbucks. I opted for a small wooden seat at a table. After about 20 minutes of typing, my backside had fallen painfully asleep. The cure was to walk around frequently and take plenty of coffee breaks, which was fortunate since I was in a coffee shop. Now I was starting to see the wisdom of the Starbucks strategy.

Three lattes later, I was humming along on the computer. But staying focused wasn’t easy — especially since I was surrounded by jacked-up regulars chatting on their mobile phones. One woman next to me went on and on about her bouts with malaria. Given my acute disease phobia, she might as well have complained about her persistent cough after a long flight home from Hong Kong. She was more bearable than the loner who giggled out loud as he downloaded pictures of his baby niece. He’d then turn his laptop towards the helpless Starbucks’ employees and call out to them: “Wanna see my photos? Wanna hear my niece talk?” No. No, of course not. But the baristas just kept frothing their milk as if they were green smocked orderlies in a mental institution. Meanwhile, I was the one who was getting steamed. And by this time I was ready to trade up from caffeine to something stronger like, say, Valium.

It gets worse. Right there in the middle of the shop was a Starbucks Mom. Think of her as a first cousin to the soccer mom, but with a nanny to take care of the carpooling leaving plenty of time for a coffee clutch. This woman was loudly bemoaning the difficulties of remodeling a ski house while bringing up baby. It was nearly impossible not to overhear the trivialities of her life given her histrionics. Thankfully, Mexico is only a plane ride away where she apparently breaks from her stressful routine by spending long afternoons drinking coffee — by the beach. I can only assume that she had the Valium I needed.

Two more lattes later, I’m finally getting on a roll until — oops — the wireless network mysteriously bumps me off, and wouldn’t let me log back on. I was instructed to call customer service. Apparently, as the nice man on the phone told me, my “session had gotten hung up” — meaning it had kicked me off and then forgotten that it had done so. Maybe even the network couldn’t concentrate with so much chatter?

But all this hassle got me thinking about the role of high-priced coffee shops in modern society. Starbucks, after all, is one part caffeine and nine parts cachet. It’s about making a commodity like coffee into a premium item that commands a hefty price tag. So why not do the same thing with bandwidth? The solution: Starbucks Business Class. Rather than try to labor among the unwashed (and sometimes malaria-infested) masses, the coffee shop could set aside a special area with Aeron chairs and quiet cubicles. Maybe they could even serve you espresso drinks and offer you the morning paper. Of course, they’d charge a premium. But if you’re willing to pay $3.50 for a cup of coffee, you might pay a little extra to drink it in peace.


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