Customers gather around tables at Sightglass, a coffee bar and roastery, in San Francisco, California May 8, 2013. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

With wi-fi freeloaders draining the bottom line, café owners try out creative approaches to get customers to stick around.

Birch Coffee, on 27th Street near Madison Avenue, looks like an archetypal hip café: exposed brick walls, darkly stained wood, Edison-bulb lighting, books wedged into built-in shelves. Laptops, though, are less omnipresent than one might imagine. Wi-fi is only available after 5 p.m. during the week, and the café doesn’t have many outlets.

So if you can’t chip away at your work while you’re drinking your latte, what are you supposed to do? Next to the register, a black-and-white letter board encourages patrons to take a laminated prompt to their table and invite conversation:

A photo posted by rachelbalanon (@rachelbalanon) on

The placards offer open-ended talking points:

Ask me about…My entrance song if I were a professional wrestler.

Tell me about...A life-changing book I should read.

Certainly, this neighborly approach won’t resonate with everyone. (Especially not with people who are grumpy before drinking their first coffee of the day.) Customer reviews on Yelp and Foursquare were mixed. Some people thought the syrupy friendliness was kind of creepy. “Weird vibe with these conversation sparker signs on the table,” wrote one. But “awesome flat whites!”

But the signs are one way for coffee shops to address the loss of conversation that’s come at the expense of the digital age. Now, more than newspapers or books, you’re likely to see a sea of screens, casting a blue glow on patrons’ faces.

“We truly believe that coffee shops were created for people to engage with one another, and meet new people, and be community hubs,” says Birch Coffee co-founder Jeremy Lyman. “When everybody has their face in their laptop, that can’t happen. We’re trying to create a way for people to be a little more vulnerable.”

The questions do offer low-stakes icebreakers—and Lyman says that he’s heard meet-cute stories about patrons who stated dating after chatting over them.  

The little cards also nod to the fact that, in many ways, wi-fi is a scourge for coffee shop owners. “Any negative comments that we ever receive, ever, always surround wi-fi,” says Lyman. People complain about spotty connections, or the outlet desert.

So when Birch opened its Upper West Side outpost a year and a half ago—before instituting the new wi-fi policy—the cards were a way to get people to scoot over and share their tables. “We were giving away a free hour of wi-fi with purchase,” Lyman explains. “We were saying, ‘if you share your table with someone, you get an extra hour.’” Back then, the cards said things like, “Let’s travel the World Wide Web together,” or “Let’s go surfing.” They weren’t entirely successful, Lyman adds, and that’s how the limited wi-fi availability came to be.

Birch is just one example of how, perhaps counterintuitively, less Internet translates to more sales for cafés.

From Los Angeles to Brooklyn—and even in the techie paradise of Palo Alto—many cafés are setting time limits on wi-fi, confining computer users to specific seats, or even covering outlets to discourage all-day campouts, or using a coffee shop as an impromptu office (“coffice”).

In Burlington, Vermont, café owner Jodi Whalen banned all screens. When her shop, August First Bakery and Café, offered unlimited bandwidth, patrons would come and sit all day. “It was money flowing out the door for us,” she told NPR. For many café owners, the big bucks are in meals, not coffee—so unless computer-toting patrons are buying sandwiches every half hour or so, the shop might not be making as much money as it could. Banning laptops increased Whalen’s revenue—and had the added benefit of eliminating slack-jawed zombies scrolling through their feeds.

Sure, Birch Coffee’s chatty cards won’t work for everyone. Maybe you just want to down a cappuccino and don’t really care what your table mate would choose as the soundtrack to his life. But every now and then, a screen break isn’t so bad.

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