Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Free wireless Internet access is a standard feature in many coffeehouses, and a set expectation of many customers. But some local coffee shops are unplugging Internet access. The goal: to free up seats and prevent customers with laptops from lingering for hours. Kojo chats with two local business owners about their decision to cut or curb wi-fi, how they’re managing customer expectations and how they’ll pursue creative business plans.
- Rasheed Jabr Owner, Filter Coffeehouse and Espresso Bar (Washington, D.C.)
- Joel Finkelstein Owner, Roaster, Qualia Coffee (Washington, D.C.)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Food Wednesday. For the last ten years or so, wireless internet access was never more than a cappuccino away, a personal office for the price of a cup of joe. Just buy one latte in the morning at your neighborhood coffee shop, plop your laptop on a table and ride the free Wi-Fi for the rest of the day.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIf you start feeling guilty about taking up space, maybe buy a croissant or a bear claw after a few hours, just to throw the place a bone. But the days of free Wi-Fi loafing may be numbered. A few local coffee shops are fighting back against the offering that many customers consider to be standard, either by limiting Wi-Fi hours or getting rid of it altogether, opening up seats for customers who want to have conversations, use the tables to eat their meals, actually buy things.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore why coffee shops are pushing back on Wi-Fi and what they stand to gain or lose by doing so is Joel Finkelstein. He is the owner and head roaster at Qualia Coffee. That's a small batch roasting company and coffee shop in Washington, D.C. Joel, it's good to see you again.
MR. JOEL FINKELSTEINIt's good to see you, too.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Rasheed Jabr. He is the owner of Filter Coffeehouse and Espresso Bar which operates in two locations in Washington, D.C. Rasheed, thank you for joining us.
MR. RASHEED JABRI'm very happy to be here, thank you very much.
NNAMDIIf you would like to join this conversation, it's easy, just call us at 800-433-8850. When you go to a coffee shop, what are your expectations when it comes to wireless internet access? 800-433-8850. Rasheed, when you start a coffee business, you're competing against the likes of Starbucks, 7-Eleven, Dunkin' Donuts. You've jumped into D.C.'s market with two feet during the past several years.
NNAMDIYou've launched one coffee shop near DuPont Circle and you just launched another in Foggy Bottom. But this one does not include Wi-Fi, a feature that a lot of customers flat-out expect to be there when they go out for coffee, and you're banning laptops. Why are you taking this stand?
JABRI decided to take this stand on this second location because I also wanted to add a different kind of ambiance to the coffee house in Foggy Bottom. The coffee house in DuPont Circle is a tucked-away neighborhood shop. We are more than happy to welcome people that want to sit down and use their laptop and frequent the cash register or espresso machine and, you know, buy several drinks.
JABRI wanted to appeal and sort of go back to the old style coffee shop when I thought about going into Foggy Bottom and I thought about it because it's separated into two levels. I have a mezzanine level, which is where all the, you know, tables and chairs are. And on the ground level, when you walk into the door, you'll see a lot of rails and a few high tables where customers can grab their coffee and espresso and, you know, place it on the rail and drink it either very fast or take their time with it and chat with their colleague or neighbor, whoever seems to be standing next to them and then go on their separate ways as they do in a lot of cafes and coffee houses in Europe.
JABRAnd banning laptops, I wanted to, you know, do that because in this day and age, everyone has a mobile hotspot in their pocket because we live in this fantastic age of technology where everything is at our fingertips. And if I didn't offer Wi-Fi, somebody else could bring it with them. So I wanted to have the laptops left in the bags just to, you know, take away from that electronic atmosphere.
JABRWhen you walk into the coffee shop and look at the tables, instead of seeing a, you know, four or five laptops open and people diligently working at them, you'll see people reading a book, talking for a little bit, maybe grading a paper quickly or jotting down a couple of notes. And that kind of gives you a feeling of, oh, I can actually come in here and do that 20 minutes of work or take that 20 minutes to unwind from the meeting that I just had in the office and then go back to my laptop at work.
JABRInstead of walking in and thinking, oh, I don't know if that person has been sitting there for three hours or five minutes, but it seems that I may have to fight for tables here as I do at all the other coffee houses that I go to in D.C.
NNAMDIA coffee shop in Guyana, South America where I grew up was where I was introduced to conversations about jazz and conversations about politics and that's why the memory sticks with me today. Lots of people come into your original location, laptops in tow, ready to spend a few hours hanging out. What did you learn from those customers about their expectations, what they want when it comes to Wi-Fi and how are you applying those lessons to what you're doing in Foggy Bottom?
JABRThe Wi-Fi at DuPont Circle is appreciated by our customers there and I don't plan on taking it away or shutting it off on weekends just because of the regulars that have been coming in and also the new customers that have been discovering us, you know, every month and every year. They interact more with the people behind the bar.
JABRThe way it's set up in DuPont Circle, the coffee bar is directly in front of all the tables so when you walk in, you'll notice some of our baristas will, you know, interact, you know, via conversation with somebody that's seated. And it's a very conversational shop, whether you're there to, you know, sit on your laptop and work for an hour or sit down. And I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to do that in Foggy Bottom because of the fact that they would be on the second floor.
JABRSo when you're tucked away on another floor in a coffee shop, you may disappear and you may not feel guilty because nobody is really watching you. Oh, nobody is noticing that I've been here for three hours sipping on this one coffee. It tastes great, but I can only do one cup a day.
JABRWhich I don't blame people. I don't want people to be over-caffeinated because they feel guilty. But, you know, I think the more movement there is in a coffee shop, the more of a chance somebody can experience it just like they are.
NNAMDIJoel Finkelstein, you were a journalist before you were in the coffee business. You told a city paper that you used to take as much advantage of coffee house Wi-Fi as anyone else. What are you doing now at Qualia?
FINKELSTEINWell, we still, I mean, I think we still allow a lot of people to come in and work. I think, unfortunately with Wi-Fi and laptops, people really tend to lose track of time. And honestly, it's not people who come in for half an hour or an hour or two hours even, but there are literally people who spend all day there and that's really where you end up, if you have a limited number of seats, running into problems.
NNAMDIWell, there were -- can I quote you? There were two quotes in the Washington city paper that I found quite amusing. You said, "I helped put Mayorga in Silver Spring out of business." You used to sit around on your laptop a lot, didn't you?
FINKELSTEINYeah, well, I think Mayorga did a pretty good job putting themselves out of business, too, but...
NNAMDIYou also said, "It's not the people who are here for an hour or two, it's the people who are here for five, six or seven hours. There were people that were putting in longer days than I was." So there were people who were actually there longer than you were or...
FINKELSTEINYeah, I mean it. For a lot of people and, you know, just where it was sort of this point in time where more and more people were out of work. And so either they had little money and they had more time on their hands and they were looking for work or, like in my business, my old business, they had gone freelance and so they were looking for office space.
FINKELSTEINAnd you know, what better office space than you have, you know, this access to food, and free Wi-Fi. And so a lot of our Wi-Fi policies actually have discouraged those sort of long-term squatters, whereas the people who come in for a few hours are still welcome.
FINKELSTEINI mean, they're still, like Rasheed said, there really are regulars a lot of times and they're very comfortable there and we like seeing them.
NNAMDISo when you did the math and you calculated seat by seat what Wi-Fi squatters did to your business, what did you find?
FINKELSTEINWe just found that they were basically crowding out people who are, I don't want to say more valuable, but they spent more money in less time at the coffee shop. You know, people would come in and buy a bag of coffee and a latte and some baked goods and spend 20 minutes. We want to make sure that those people have seats when they come in or they just stop coming in.
NNAMDIHow do you find people typically react when you tell them, hey, we're in a Wi-Fi free period right now, you've got to close that laptop and move on?
FINKELSTEINI'd say, I mean, I'd say 95 to 98 percent of the time, it's good. It's a good, you know, they understand. You know, this is sort of a free thing that we offer them. It's not a guarantee. And you know, there's a small percentage who...
NNAMDIYeah, that's what we want to hear about, the 1 percent.
FINKELSTEINYeah, there's definitely a small percentage that feel that they've spent their $2 or $3 and they sit there for as long as they want.
NNAMDIThis is a human right, some people think. 800-433-8850. Here is Erin in Frederick, Md. Erin you're on the air. Well, I can't get Erin right now. Maybe I'll try Benjamin in Washington, D.C. I can't get Benjamin either. We'll get back with you later. If you're trying to get in touch with us, go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org We're talking with Joel Finkelstein, owner and head roaster at Qualia Coffee, a small batch roasting company and coffee shop in Washington, D.C. and Rasheed Jabr. He is the owner of Filter Coffeehouse and Espresso Bar which operates in two locations in Washington, D.C.
NNAMDIWhat was your vision for your business when you started? It seems like you're trying to make your coffee shop a part of the neighborhood or to establish a sense of community. Getting people to hang out with Wi-Fi in a situation like that might not be such a bad thing.
JABRIt might not be such a bad thing. The DuPont location is more of a neighborhood shop. However, the Foggy Bottom location is located, you know, in the building 1919 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest. Now, that's mostly in a business-only neighborhood. There's not too much residential around us, if any. So am I going to have regulars that come in every day? Yes, we actually have been noticing regulars coming in every day and we're excited to see them. But I want, you know, I also want more people to discover it on a daily basis.
JABRNow is it going to be part of their business neighborhood? Yes. Are we going to create a kind of a neighborhood environment for them when they're at work as well? Yes, I think having no Wi-Fi there and, you know, discouraging the use of, you know, laptops is going to, you know, allow people to say, let's go to, you know, Filter Coffeehouse because we can definitely go there and talk and not feel like we're bothering the person sitting next to us on their laptop trying to do work and we also could find a seat easily.
NNAMDIIf not through Wi-Fi, how else do you manage that part of your business plan, Joel?
FINKELSTEINWhat do you mean?
NNAMDIThe part of your business plan to get people in there?
FINKELSTEINOh, well, I mean, honestly, for the people who come in and the first question out of their mouth is, you know, do you have free Wi-Fi? It's a little discouraging because I, you know, we've worked really hard to produce some excellent coffee, something that we're recognized for and they can literally go anywhere else, you know, and get free Wi-Fi. I mean, there's parks in D.C. that have free Wi-Fi so for people to come to us for the Wi-Fi versus a great cup of coffee can be a little disheartening.
NNAMDIWhat kind of pressure does it put on you when Starbucks, the biggest, baddest company out there is offering it to their customers and you're already doing everything you can to defend your turf? What kind of pressure does that put on you?
JABRIt actually doesn't really put that much pressure on me. For someone that's looking for the free Wi-Fi as their number one reason for going to a coffee shop, they're going to go to the Starbucks. I agree with Joel. We want people to come into our shops because the coffee is why they're there. You know, coffee, the service, everything else is just going to be an added bonus or you know, sprinkles on the cake, if, you know, you might say.
JABRSo you know, a funny story. Whenever my baristas answer the phone in DuPont Circle and the first question on the phone is, do you have free Wi-Fi, they always respond, yes, we do. We also have wonderful coffee. You know, and I actually thank Starbucks for offering free Wi-Fi because for the customers that are only going to want to go for the Wi-Fi alone, they can find plenty of seats in the four Starbucks that are around me. And the customers that want to come to our shops for the coffee, that'll free up some seats for them to come in.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we will continue this conversation on coffee and Wi-Fi and take your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send us a Tweet at kojoshow. Email to email@example.com or simply go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Food Wednesday coffee without Wi-Fi. We're talking with Rasheed Jabr. He is the owner of Filter Coffeehouse and Espresso Bar which operates in two locations in Washington D.C. And Joel Finkelstein is the owner and head roaster at Qualia Coffee, a small batch roasting company and coffee shop here in Washington, D.C.
NNAMDITo some degree both of you are working against customer expectations with your coffee programs alone, are you not? You're not exactly in the business of serving whipped cream infused 20 ounce caramel lattes. Joel, you write on your website pretty clearly that you're seeking to redefine how people experience coffee. What do you mean by that?
FINKELSTEINWell, you know, it was funny, Kojo, when you talked about Starbucks 'cause I don't even think Starbucks serves coffee anymore. I think they serve milkshakes. But, yeah, so from my perspective, coffee is a natural product, but it's also a culinary. There's a culinary aspect to it. So we offer ten to twelve different beans from different countries.
FINKELSTEINAnd we really want to focus on what the natural flavors of the coffee are, not sort of as a flavoring for some concoction but what the coffee brings to the table by itself. So we really encourage people to drink black coffee and maybe add a little milk. But really appreciate the coffee for what it offers as a natural product versus sort of this, you know, cocktail almost.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up because over and above the Wi-Fi issue, Rasheed, when it comes to coffee, Americans are very different as a customer base than Europeans. The New York Times ran a piece earlier this year about everything Starbucks is doing to adjust its business to customer expectations in places like France, where people don't take their coffee to go in paper cups as much as we do. How do you explain how different expectations, different cultures develop around coffee in different places?
JABRI think the U.S. market has changed and is still changing. And it's all marketing driven, to be honest with you. The specialty coffee revolution started, thanks to Howard Schultz, and, you know, people started getting interested in coffee and espresso drinks and large and small and nonfat and syrups. And then the revolution started to take a pause and, you know, people started thinking about the coffee itself and the main ingredient, as Joel was just speaking.
JABRAnd if you look at even the food revolution, everything went from basic comfort food and then it got into gastro and foams and mists and crystals. And now everybody's coming back down to simplicity and going back to grassroots and grass fed and small production and the farmers and the ingredients themselves. And I think in every market, both in, you know, Europe, Asia and, you know, and the U.S. it's pretty much dependent on what the consumer wants.
JABRSo if the consumer wants a coffee from Kenya that's sourced from a single farm they're going to go out and look for it. Or when they see it they're going to say, I will have a cup of that Kenya. However, if the consumer wants a $2 cup of coffee, even if you offer them ten different other coffees that are from the 3 to the 5 to the 6 range, depending on where they're sourced and, you know, how much of a small crop they are, they may not try it right away. They may just keep going for their $2 cup of coffee. And one day they'll treat themselves to that $4 cup of, you know, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe.
NNAMDIJoel, to what extent do you see ditching Wi-Fi or rethinking Wi-Fi as part of something that brings us closer to the kind of coffeehouse culture in European countries?
FINKELSTEINWell, it was like Rasheed was saying before, I'm not sure Wi-Fi is going to be the issue in the future because people really won't need that sort of tether. They'll be untethered. But there definitely is an aspect to restricting it that is so much nicer. It's like a mental cleanser. We do it once a month. One week in a month we just have no Wi-Fi and, you know, the specific implication is, please leave it at home. You know, let's have face-to-face interaction.
FINKELSTEINAnd those weekends are so pleasant for us 'cause people are interacting and they're having -- they're engaged in what we have to offer. And that has real benefits from a mental, you know, from sort of a social and a psychological aspect. And I have to say, like our revenues don't go down those weekends.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here now is Greg in Silver Spring, Md. Greg, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GREGGood afternoon, Kojo and friends. I'd say the tables have turned because what I'd like to comment on is that back about five, seven years ago when I was going to college up in Rockville, after school me and friends we would go to a Starbucks just to hang out, discuss, talk, laugh, scenes of the day. And I can remember on several occasions people who were using laptops would tell us that we were making too much noise and to keep it down because they were trying to work.
GREGSo it's interesting to see the evolution or the whole -- just basically the tables have turned.
NNAMDISo you were shushed just like you were in the college library.
GREGRight, yeah, exactly. Almost as though we were in the college library, exactly.
NNAMDISo you're happy to see that the tables have turned?
NNAMDIAre you happy to see that the tables either have or are turning?
GREGI don't know. It's just, you know, yes and no because, you know, now I'm a professional and I actually use Wi-Fi. But, you know, I was never one to, you know, like if people were laughing and talking and whatever, you know, I would never tell them to keep it down or whatever.
NNAMDIWell, apparently conversation is going to be returning to your nearby coffeehouse sometime soon. Greg, thank you very much for your call -- or it already has. Here is Abby in Silver Spring, Md. Abby, your turn.
ABBYHi, thanks. I was driving by (unintelligible) and I thought I'd call. Anyway, I'm not a coffee drinker and I'm not a liquor drinker, but I think there's something similar there. I wouldn't go to a bar and sit up at the table with my laptop or I wouldn't just not drink 'cause I've come to a bar to drink. Similarly when I come to meet my boyfriend at the coffee shop and he's drinking, I feel a little guilty so I buy some tea. But you're a business. You're there to be a business.
ABBYI've been to Sydney, Australia, where people sit outside and chatter in their coffee shop. I'm really excited that we're going to have that kind of environment.
NNAMDISpeaking of Sydney, Australia, you should know that Rasheed has carved out a kind of niche for himself by serving coffee drinks that are popular in Australia and New Zealand. What's a flat white?
JABRSo a flat white is an Aussie or a Kiwi term for a latte. But they don't like their lattes in large canisters that have funny names. They just want a basic size. And a friend of mine did a lot of work on ships as an engineer and he docked a few times in Australia and told me about how, you know, the people in that, you know, hemisphere are just fanatical about their coffee and love it so much.
JABRAnd while I was building the first location in DuPont, I would hear a lot of accents from New Zealand and Australia in the neighborhood sitting next to me at a restaurant or walking by me. So I wanted to attempt to, you know, see if I could bring something from their home and offer it because I didn't see it on anybody's menus. So we started offering flat whites. And the way we do it is -- it's nice because you get a double shot of espresso just like you would with your 12 ounce latte but it's served in a smaller cup. So there's less milk. So now you get a more stronger coffee tasting beverage without adding that extra caffeine.
JABRAnd we also introduced something called the long black which in, you know, also those countries they pull their espresso longer because they want to sip on it for a little while. We do it a little bit differently. We shrink down our Americano size to about five ounces, so you've got about, you know, five ounces of hot water. And then we brew that double shot of espresso over it. So for an espresso lover that wants their espresso for more than, you know, 20 seconds and they want to sip on it for two minutes or three minutes, the long black is there for them.
JABRAnd we've gotten some, you know, great responses from that. And I've heard that, you know, in London and in New York people are now making flat whites and offering them as well.
NNAMDISo are you getting a lot of Aussies and a lot of New Zealanders?
JABRI'm trying to, yeah. Yeah, every time they walk in they have a big smile on their face and they get excited when they see the menu.
NNAMDIAbby, thank you for your call. Have you traveled to a country where the culture and behavior associated with coffee is different from that here in the states? How did you manage? Would you have felt weird taking a paper cup to go if you were in that location? 800-433-8850. You can send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is Hope in Tacoma Park, Md. Hope, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HOPEYes. I had a sort of nostalgic comment to make and then another about Spain and Italy, where I go quite frequently. But years ago in Austin I met my lifelong friends in the coffeehouses of Austin before laptops and -- or even internet, I have to say. And I miss those days where you actually talk to people. But where I go in Spain and Italy, people, if they're going to hang out in a café, I guess you'd say, they don't sit and drink coffee the whole time. In fact, if they're going to take a coffee, it takes them like 30 seconds to drink it. The long black made me think of that.
HOPEAnd we're a little different. We drink our coffee a little longer. We take our coffee a little longer. It has more water in it literally, or the American style. So I find if people are going to hang out in coffee houses in Europe where I've been, they usually are drinking alcohol not coffee.
NNAMDICare to comment...
HOPEOr cafes I mean.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Rasheed? Has that been your experience?
JABRWell, in my experience in some of the places that I've been to in Europe, they also charge more if you'd like to sit and have a cup of coffee to stay, you know. If -- you know, you'll go to the coffee bar. If you want an espresso, you know, you order an espresso and it's, you know, I can't remember how much it was back then. And then they would drink it and go on their merry way. If you sat at a table, your espresso is now more expensive because it includes table service, it includes a glass of water and it includes the tip because in Europe, you know, nobody tips. Everything's included in the price. So now you're actually paying for that service.
JABRIt was something that I thought about maybe thinking of introducing but totally threw that idea out the window because I didn't want to get into the whole debate of why is my espresso more expensive because I'm sitting down. So I just figured I'd, you know, stick to the, you know...
NNAMDIHope, thank you very much for your call. We got this email from James in Bethesda. "I don't go to coffeehouses to make friendly conversation with hipster baristas or the awkward loiterers around me. I go to coffeehouses to listen to crappy music, park my laptop somewhere other than my dreadful apartment and rewrite chapter 35 of my all-but-soon-to-be-finished novel. And it's not getting any better either. I'm going to need another nine or ten weekends of fulltime Wi-Fi piggybacking to rewrite that chapter alone." Can you help James out, Joel Finkelstein?
FINKELSTEINWell, it's quite interesting that he decided to email us instead of call in. Actually, you know, before Fox gets this and turns this into a war on Wi-Fi, the fact of the matter is that we do, like, Rasheed and I both, you know, allow people to come in and use the coffee shops to do work. And I think there will always be a role for us because the ambiance -- as much as we would like to cater conversation and interaction, it also has a vibrancy to it that seems to be conducive to getting a certain amount of work done.
FINKELSTEINAnd a lot of our customers are students, honestly. And we want -- you know, we really support those people to come in and spend some time there. I mean, at the end of the day, it's really more about moderation than anything else.
NNAMDIThe war on coffee shops. I can see the headlines now. The war on Wi-Fi that is. Here is Ken in Gaithersburg, Md. Ken, your turn.
KENHi, thank you for taking my call. I was born in New York where I spent my first 14 years and I grew up in Taiwan. And oddly enough both places, very far geographically, have very, very strong coffee cultures. And when I was a kid, if you went into an Italian neighborhood, even into a greasy spoon, you would have to try to get a bad cup of coffee. And the same thing is true in Taiwan. And in both places, they abhor paying through the nose for bad coffee.
KENAnd one of the things I found in America is that coffee is expected to be this bitter kind of burnt tasting brew. And no place else in the world will that pass for coffee. How does that happen?
NNAMDIWell, I don't know how it happened, but we did talk with Joel Finkelstein last fall about his obsession with roasting. So he can talk about that and about the scientific approach he takes to the coffee he serves. But in this case, Rasheed, I'll start with you. Where do you get your coffee from and how would you respond to Ken?
JABRWe source our coffee from Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Annapolis, Md. You know, I agree with Joel on, you know, building the local market and, you know, supporting local merchants, which is why I wanted to start a relationship with the folks over in Annapolis and have been very happy ever since.
JABRAs to the uber dark roasted coffee culture that has been, you know, basically stereotyped American coffee, I mean, I think it all started when people were just, you know, I guess obsessed with that strong cup of joe. And to get that strong cup of joe, you had to cook it longer and roast it longer. And that unfortunately became the normal for a cup of coffee. And we still have customers come in saying I want a really dark roast, really strong cup of coffee.
JABRWhere, you know, as we know in the industry and as I'm sure Joel has discussed maybe on previous shows, you roast a coffee darker you're not going to have as much caffeine left in there as you do if you roast it in peak roast in a lighter color. And you'll lose a lot of that -- you know, those flavor nuances and delicate notes that you could get out of that bean.
JABRSimilar to, you know, getting that, you know, piece of fish or that cut of meat. If you cook it well done it, you know, might not be the right temperature to cook that piece of food. You know, it might be better at medium rare or medium so you actually get the flavors that, you know, the person that raised that, you know, cow or lamb or, you know, actually fished that piece of fish out of the ocean for you wants you to taste.
NNAMDIYou're also serving pour-over coffee. What kind of brewing process do you use at Filter?
JABRWe use multiple brewing processes. We -- at DuPont Circle we use French press as our large scale brewing method in the morning. So when you walk in and are in a hurry and you want a small cup of coffee or a large cup of coffee it's ready for you. We offer the pour-over method, you know, all day long in both locations 'cause it gives people a chance to order off a menu. So you can choose from six different varietals of coffee from all around the world. And we -- it's weighed out and ground right in front of you and, you know, it's brewed in the filter with your cup directly under it.
JABRIt's a great way to make coffee because it's fresh. And you also have a variety of choices rather than, you know, whatever is in the urn.
NNAMDIJoel Finkelstein, care to respond to Ken's criticism of the way Americans like our coffee?
FINKELSTEINYeah, I mean, I think it's largely economics. The flavors that we're trying to tap into are pretty delicate. They dissipate over time. And I'm talking about like two weeks really. We recommend consuming freshly roasted coffee within two weeks. And so one of the ways to compensate for this to basically give the coffee more shelf life is to dark roast it because what you do is you actually -- the roasting process takes over. And it produces its own flavor which is far more durable than natural flavors of the coffee.
FINKELSTEINAnd so if you're a Starbucks or if you're a large wholesale roaster, in order for people to say that your coffee has flavor, any flavor, even if it's not the natural flavor of the coffee, you kind of have to dark roast it 'cause those natural flavors are just going to dissipate by the time you get it out to your customers.
NNAMDIHere is Benjamin in Washington. Benjamin, your turn. You're on the air. Go ahead please. Hi, Benjamin, are you there? Well...
BENJAMINHello, hello, hello.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Benjamin.
BENJAMINAll right. Thanks for taking my call. Quick question for you. I'm a little confused. Is the issue more -- is it more about turning a profit in that more customers will be sitting at tables that the Wi-Fi users would be using up, or is the issue more about engaging in conversation? Because in Europe people will sit down -- I just visited France, and St. Germaine in France, a lot of coffee shops there and people will sit down and have, I guess, café, and then have a conversation, a very long conversation, and it could be half an hour to an hour.
BENJAMINThe pricing is similar. The coffee is certainly different, but it seems like even without the Wi-Fi, people are going to still sit down and have a conversation and take their time to enjoy their coffee.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Rasheed?
JABRI say for -- the reason why we're doing it in Foggy Bottom is for the reason of ambience more than, you know, numbers or profitability. Because I agree with you, conversations can happen for an hours, sometimes two hours. A book can be read for an hour or sometimes two hours. So I know that, you know, that can happen, which is why -- the reason why we chose to do it in Foggy Bottom is for the feel of the coffee house and for, you know, the ambiance that you, you know, get when you walk in.
NNAMDIPat from Annandale, Md. called. She couldn't stay on the line, but she wanted to ask are there any coffee shops that offer limited access like one hour free after you buy a cup of coffee, because she experienced that in Holland. Joel Finkelstein, do you know anything about that?
FINKELSTEINYeah. I mean, I definitely think that there are some coffee shops that take that approach. We have -- but to be honest, we have a password on our Wi-Fi, and we still end up doing technical support for our customers. So any technical solution becomes, you know, adds complications to the process, and kind of the thing you want to do is, if you're offering Wi-Fi, is not spend a lot of time trying to get people to actually access it.
NNAMDIYou want to serve coffee. Benjamin, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation on coffee shops and Wi-Fi, but you can still call us. 800-433-8850. Do you routinely ride the free wireless Internet access at coffee shops or at Starbucks? How long does it take for you to feel guilty about hogging a table or a couch space? Do you buy anything after that initial cup of coffee? Do you buy anything at all? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking coffee and Wi-Fi with Rasheed Jabr. He is the owner of Filter Coffee House and Espresso Bar which operates in two locations in Washington, D.C., and Joel Finkelstein, owner and head roaster at Qualia Coffee, a small batch roasting company and coffee shop also in Washington D.C. We got this email from Langston on H. Street. I'll share it in two parts. Here's the first. "Why did coffee shops start offering free Wi-Fi in the first place?"
FINKELSTEINThat's a pretty hard question. I mean, isn't it all, you know, for all time, wasn't that in the Bible that coffee shops had free Wi-Fi? I think it was initially something that was used as a way to attract people in, but probably as Wi-Fi has become more common, as laptops have become more common, it's, you know, we reached a threshold where it becomes counterproductive.
NNAMDIHere's Diana in Washington, D.C. Diana, your turn.
DIANAHi, thank you. So I've been -- just want to make a quick comment about the Wi-Fi and the non-Wi-Fi. One of the things that Rasheed has done, and I've been going to Filter for about a year and a half or so, I think he's really changed the neighborhood. It's something that I don't think has been really discussed on the call today, but by having a place where you can really interact with your neighbors, he's actually done that.
DIANAHe's changed the neighborhood in that we now know who our neighbors are, and I think through going there and through interacting, a lot of us that have done that have made new friends, have had new business contacts, and I think the bigger picture here is that by removing Wi-Fi, or by not focusing on Wi-Fi, we actually get back to who we are as people, and are able to sort of interact as opposed to living in this very connected world where we're in fact very disconnected. So it's bigger than just sort of serving a good product. I think it's actually changed the dynamic of the people that are in that neighborhood, and how they interact with each other.
NNAMDIDiana, thank you for your call. Here, sharing another Filter experience is Andrew in Arlington, Va. Andrew, your turn.
ANDREWSorry. You caught me in mid-bite in a sandwich. But thanks for the conversation. I'm sorry, I tuned in a little late, so I don't know if it was already covered, but one of my fondest memories at Filter, the original DuPont location, was for their first anniversary I remember they shut wireless off and they made that announcement ahead of time so people wouldn't be, you know, prepared to get some work done on a very busy day for celebration purposes, and I thought it was really refreshing.
ANDREWI mean, I had never seen something like that before. I mean, you do tend to expect wireless at a coffee shop, but it's definitely a right or an expectation I have at all times.
NNAMDIRasheed Jabr, did that experience of shutting off for a day to celebrate have any impact on your thinking?
JABRIt was a refreshing restart as Joel said before, and it was, you know, I wanted to create more traffic flow so people could come in and enjoy the celebration and, you know, get their, you know, one dollar cappuccinos that day, or, you know, the affogatos we were serving, which I'm sorry we can't have on the menu because we don't have any freezers, but we also did it on New Year's Day this year, and I sent out an email saying, we will be open on New Year's Day, however, we will only be serving croissant and playing jazz. The wireless will be turned off. Happy New Year, let's restart the new year, and we got a great response from it.
JABRI wanted to add to the question earlier about how it started with free Wi-Fi.
JABRI think it was because a coffee shop is perceived busy and successful if it's full. So people started offering Wi-Fi free to customers because they wanted to actually pack in the seats, and it's a great way to get people into your door.
JABRI think it sort of backfired on the industry unfortunately, because now it's expected, and now it's -- the seats are always full by that one person.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Andrew. And Joel, while we're on the theme of managing expectation since Rasheed just mentioned that, it's my understanding that you found yourself in the middle of a debate about whether local roasters like yourself should be able to sell your beans as farmers markets that insist on selling only local products. What's this debate all about?
FINKELSTEINWell, I think part of it was that some of the larger farmers markets decided that coffee was not -- they would not consider it a local project if it was roasted locally, because it's not grown locally. For a lot of my customers, that seems like a strange choice. So I actually -- the funny thing is, I actually started out in farmers markets. I started roasting from home and working at farmers markets before I ever opened the coffee shop, and so it seemed like a natural venue for me because we only sell coffee within three days of when it's roasted, and I can't really put it on store shelves.
FINKELSTEINSo my only real option is to have these limited availability situations. But unfortunately, Fresh Farms, and some of the other large farmers markets in the area just decided that coffee was not local, they didn't want to have a talk, discuss it, and that was it. And so I've kind of been waging this three-year battle. Sometimes I just go down to DuPont Circle and I hand out free samples and say, hey, if you'd like a local roaster at your farmers market, you know, please tell the management. Apparently that's how the bread vendors got in, because they were not allowed initially as well. So...
NNAMDIWell, after this broadcast, they'll be a change in attitude, I can guarantee that. What would it mean to your business to be able to get in on a market like the DuPont market?
FINKELSTEINWell, I mean, in terms of us growing as a business, it would be really important, because like I said, I cannot expand by selling my coffee in stores, because the requirement would be too strenuous for them in terms of taking the coffee off the shelf, and so, you know, having access to -- we're in Petworth, which is not a -- we don't get a lot of foot traffic, you know, it's very residential, so it's been a great neighborhood for us to be in and we've grown there, but it would be really nice to have access to other parts of the city.
NNAMDIThere's a little market right up the street from you, a couple blocks up from Petworth.
NNAMDICan you sell there?
FINKELSTEINWell, yeah. I was actually one of the founding members of the Petworth (unintelligible) .
NNAMDII suspected that, yes.
FINKELSTEINSo we do sell there, but that, you know, it's two blocks away, so I'm pretty much poaching my own customers.
NNAMDIWhat sense do you have for how much coffee consumers care about buying a local product? Both you and Rasheed seem to feel that's important.
FINKELSTEINWell, I think like Rasheed said earlier, it's definitely something that's evolving, a consciousness that's evolving. People know about local. Unfortunately, there's still this perception that coffee comes from around the world, and so, therefore, there's no such thing as local coffee, and I'm on the other side of that, and I really think that there's a distinct advantage to having it locally roasted, having it small-batch roasted, and so hopefully that's something that evolves and changes.
FINKELSTEINI mean, since we've been open, we've grown and we roast about 11, 1200 pounds of bean a month. So it's not, you know, there's not an insignificant demand for that.
NNAMDIHere is Vivienne in Annapolis, Md. Vivienne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VIVIENNEHi. I just wanted to say about the European experience, that I really do like when I go to a European coffee house, I can walk in and not feel like an idiot having to figure out what to order, how to order, the right language, I mean, language meaning the -- not foreign language, but, like, if you walk into Starbucks, you feel like you have to right lingo, and it seems in Europe there's not a hundred different ways to order coffee or cappuccino. You just go in, you have it, and usually you sit outside too, so that gives up space inside.
VIVIENNEA lot of people will sit outside for hours whether it's cold or snow. And one more thing is I hope that this -- I hope that the coffee houses do go back to what they were, and that was to have conversation over -- with friends over politics and really enjoy one another instead of being isolation on a computer.
NNAMDIWhich is precisely what Rasheed and Joel are trying to make sure happens, correct?
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Vivienne. Got an email from -- oh, the second part of Langston's email, "In the past during moves to new cities, coffee shops' Wi-Fi has been a lifesaver until getting Internet service up and running in our new house, and seeking it out has helped us find great spots we've gone back to for the great coffee alone once we're settled in. Do these shop owners worry they'll miss out on potential new customers if they don't offer Wi-Fi?" Is that a worry of yours, Joel?
FINKELSTEINYeah. I mean, absolutely. I mean, it's a balancing act, because as a business we always have to think of what our -- what the action and reactions is to any policy that we have, and so like I was saying before, it's sort of -- we're trying to find the right balance between catering to the people who want to come in and spend, you know, a certain amount of time on the Wi-Fi, and then also having the people who really value what we do from the coffee perspective, and have them, you know, make space for them as well. And so we, you know, as little as we'd like to discourage anyone from coming into the coffee shop, we have to constantly strike that balance as a business to generate the amount of revenue we need to keep our doors open.
NNAMDIRasheed, we learned all about how Joel got into the coffee business a few months ago. What's your story? Why are you in the game and why did you decide that D.C. was a ripe location to give it a shot?
JABRI'm in the game -- I fell in love with the restaurant industry over the past 12 years, and I was involved in it on a part-time basis as a student, and then on a full-time basis after finishing college and was chasing my dream of opening my restaurant wine bar for myself. And when I decided to take a step away from the restaurant business because of, you know, personal reasons. I wanted to, you know, have more of a life in the p.m. than I was having.
JABRA friend of mine -- friends of mine actually, Mike Love and Alicia Kelligrew who own Coffee Labs Roasters in Tarrytown, New York, invited me to go to Coffeefest, which is a convention that used to actually happen a lot in Washington D.C., and they said, why don't you take a look at this coffee industry, and see if maybe you would want to get into it, because it seems that you love the service industry for the service part. You could probably apply those, you know, skills and love to coffee, and it was like an awakening.
JABRAnd I walked into this big toy store which was a convention center with machines and coffees and people and so many different ways to use them and interact with them, and discovered that my coffee house could be my daytime restaurant or wine bar, and it can be as complicated or as simple as I wanted it to be, whether it was just coffee and pastries or coffee, wine, food, salad, and it was, you know, thanks to them that they pushed me along in that way and I worked with them for two years.
JABRAnd every time I came to visit my brother in Washington D.C., there was maybe one or two coffee shops that, you know, in my opinion served good coffee, but they weren't really anywhere near the center of the city. They were either, you know, in neighborhoods like Petworth all the way down on Eastern Market, and I kept getting pulled by my relatives here saying listen, instead of opening in New York, New York's going to be fine. You should come down to D.C. and open a coffee shop here. And after a few nudges by family, I finally, you know, said, you know what you're right.
NNAMDIAnd he's been making new friends ever since.
NNAMDIHere's another new friend you just made. We got this email from Howard from New Zealand who said, "Tell your guest I am coming from the Eastern Shore this weekend for a flat white, glad to hear it, and well done."
NNAMDIAnd this we got from Jonathan, Joel. "The best coffee I ever had was made for me by a coffee farmer in Madagascar, roasted for a few minutes on a modest wood fire in front of me on something that looked like a metal screen window and sweetened with sugar cane hacked from a living plant while I was waiting and squeezed right into it. Any guess what kind of coffee beans these might have been, and any place in D.C. that sweetens coffee that way?"
FINKELSTEINI don't know. With that experience, it may not even matter what the coffee is. That was good, back to what (unintelligible) was saying last time I was here is like most people's best experience with coffee is on vacation.
NNAMDIJoel Finkelstein, he is the owner and head roaster at Qualia Coffee. It's a small batch roasting company and coffee shop in Washington. Joel, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIRasheed Jabr is the owner of Filter Coffee House and Espresso Bar. It operates in two locations in Washington, D.C. Rasheed, good to meet you, thank you for joining us.
JABRPleasure to be here. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
In author Jabari Asim's fictionalized St. Louis -- the 'Gateway City' first introduced in his short story collection 'A Taste of Honey' –- characters come to grips with the fallout of the civil rights era in surprising ways. We talk with Asim about the fictional world he created and examine the realities of how we deal with race in America today.
We explore the lessons from cities that have boosted their minimum wage as D.C. activists try to get a minimum wage hike on the ballot next year.
Kojo sits down with Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen to talk about her first months on the job, how she's prioritizing public health needs, and how her personal story instructs her vision for health policy and progress in Baltimore.