Camping out at the coffee shop: Patrons who use WiFi but don't buy anything common at Fargo coffee joints
FARGO -- At Atomic Coffee on Broadway last week, Brynn Luger's table was the epitome of a college student.
Going for her doctorate in counselor education at North Dakota State University, Luger was typing quietly away on her laptop, with a doorstop of a psychology textbook on one side of her and a sandwich wrap and Diet Coke on the other.
With college students gearing up for their upcoming finals, coffee shops around the Fargo-Moorhead area reflect similar scenes. As they cram for their classes, patrons bury themselves in their textbooks or focus on their laptops.
Luger, who said she usually spends an hour at a time at Atomic, likes to do her studying there because of the free Wi-Fi and the quiet atmosphere.
But area coffee shop managers say that unlike Luger, who already made her purchase for the day, not all visitors to their establishments who use the free Internet take out their wallets.
Those types of patrons, staff say, come in only to use the WiFi, whether on their own laptop or the coffee shop's house computer. Some of them often camp out for extended periods of time, either without buying anything or just nursing a cheap drink.
And for the most part, baristas are okay with those types of people -- to an extent.
When it becomes a problem, though, like it did recently at Luna Coffee in Fargo, then managers say they need to address it.
There, owner Joe Omodt said the unprotected Internet got so slow it was practically useless.
"You couldn't watch YouTube at all," he said.
After talking with his provider a couple weeks ago, Omodt was able to make the Internet password-protected, which he said made an immediate difference.
"All of a sudden, I have faster-than-ever speed," he said.
The problem isn't exactly a mystery. Omodt figures that the number of people who'd come in, not buy anything and then spend hours on their laptops likely brought the speed down.
He also had a problem with an overuse of the shop's house computer, again by customers who wouldn't buy anything.
His solution for both problems is to require a purchase for patrons to be able to use both the house computer and the Wi-Fi.
With each purchase, staff at Luna will write the wireless password on the back of a receipt, and customers can access it that way, Omodt said.
Up until these issues became too much of a hassle, though, Omodt said he never had a problem with the people who came in and didn't buy anything. He was fine to let them be, as long as they didn't take up space that paying customers needed.
"If it's not busy, what's the problem?" he said. "It doesn't bother me, except for (the Internet) issue."
Staff at both Atomic and Jitter's Coffee Bar near NDSU, places with free and unprotected Wi-Fi, say that though they too get similar types of non-paying visitors, they've never had a problem like at Luna.
Zach Shogren, a barista at Jitters, said that no matter whether somebody buys a drink or not, as long as they're not being disruptive, it's fine to let them be.
"That's what coffee shops are for," he said. "It's that central hub where people can go."
Being near North Dakota State University, Jitters often gets students who are coming in for study groups, or to meet friends or to just lounge around, and it's typically that kind of customer that might not buy anything.
Even so, Shogren said neither he nor the other staff there would likely consider asking those people to leave.
"We want to have that atmosphere where it seems welcoming, and not put any pressure on people to have to spend the big bucks to be able to sit around here," he said.
That's the case at Atomic as well, where manager Angelique Kube said plenty of seating means staff is pretty tolerant of people camping out for hours, whether or not they've purchased anything.
"That's never a really big issue for us," she said. "We probably have one of the largest seating areas."
Instead, baristas at Atomic keep an eye out for three other types of customers -- the sleepers, the panhandlers or the disruptive types.
"I would rather focus my energy on people who are panhandling or disruptive to paying customers as opposed to people who are coming in to use the Wi-Fi," Kube said.
For her part, Luger admits she might be guilty of sitting around to study long after she's finished her drink, but she said she doesn't understand the people who hang out at places like Atomic without buying anything at all.
"It's a business," she said. "You should buy something, if you're in a business."
Benshoof is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.