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Wicker Park Coffee Shop Opts Out of Wi-Fi, Courts Culture of Conversation

By Alisa Hauser | January 30, 2014 9:54am
 La Colombe, a new coffee shop at 1552 N. Damen Ave. in Wicker Park.
Inside La Colombe
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WICKER PARK — Looking for a quiet place to hunch over your laptop and get some work done over the Internet?  While there's plenty of places where you can do that, one cafe is encouraging you to leave your computer behind.

At La Colombe, which opened earlier this month at 1552 N. Damen Ave. in Wicker Park, the lack of Wi-Fi is intentional, as is the lack of menus on the walls, said manager Kate Markham.

Markham said the design was meant to foster "interaction and conversation."

Located in the former Greener Cleaners next to the CTA Damen "L" station, the cafe has 35 seats, including pew-style seating along two walls and a community table that overlooks the bustle of people coming in and out of the station.

 Excerpts of sketches Dana Larson has inked while drawing in area cafes. When Larson found out that La Colombe does not have Wi-Fi Internet access, she said she plans to bring her sketchbook there.
Excerpts of sketches Dana Larson has inked while drawing in area cafes. When Larson found out that La Colombe does not have Wi-Fi Internet access, she said she plans to bring her sketchbook there.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

La Colombe serves coffee only — no juices or teas — and food options are limited to a half-dozen varieties of pastries from Lincoln Park's Floriole Bakery.

Markham spent two weeks in training at the roaster's Rittenhouse Square cafe in Philadelphia and said she was hoping Wicker Park's La Colombe would eventually have a culture similar to that cafe, where "it's packed with regulars and everyone is chatting" with each other.

So far, it's too soon to tell how patrons will react to the chain's no Wi-Fi policy. But on Wednesday, two people were using alternative ways to access the Internet on their laptops while several others were engaged in conversation.

Shawna Lavelle, a marketing consultant, was using a "hot spot" on her phone that she pays about $20 a month for in order to connect to the Internet "anywhere."

Lavelle said she "wouldn't be here as much now that I know it doesn't have Wi-Fi." 

"That's what these cafes are for, the environment of a co-working space. Rare are the days that people just meet for conversation and coffee," Lavelle said.

Dana Larson, a Wicker Park resident who was waiting in line for a latte, said she would be "more likely" to come to La Colombe since it does not offer the Internet.

Larson, who was headed to her day job Downtown, said she planned to bring her sketchbook to La Colombe. 

Larson has sketched at other area cafes like Caffe Streets and Ready Coffee.

"I would love to come here and do art. If I am working from home [for her day job], I bring my work home, not to a coffee shop," Larson said. 

Larson, who had been staring at her smartphone when a reporter approached her, said she wished there were "more excuses to look up and meet people on the fly" rather than being on the Internet.

Robert "Mac" Maclean, who has an office directly next to La Colombe and was on a coffee break with his sister, said he was not aware there was no Wi-Fi at the cafe.

"I should just put a sign up front with my credentials: Wi-Fi password in case people want to use it,"  Maclean joked.

Another La Colombe, at 955 W. Randolph St. in the West Loop., has been Wi-Fi free for more than two years.

"We do get a lot of people asking about why we don't have [Wi-Fi], but we have a lot of other people that come here to have a meeting and sit down and talk and enjoy each other's company without computers everywhere," said Antonio Sala, a barista at the West Loop La Colombe.

In July, Bad Wolf Coffee opened at 3422 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lakeview, and in addition to not offering Wi-Fi, the cafe doesn't even provide chairs.

Reached by phone on Thursday, owner Jonathan Ory said it's "going great."

"It works great, especially on weekends when we get more people in here, talking to each other," Ory said of his cafe, which has stand-up tables where about 20 people can hang out.

In 2011, another Wicker Park cafe opened with ambitions of being a social hub.

Caffe Streets, at 1750 W. Division St., initially did not offer Wi-Fi. Cafe founder Darko Arandjelovic said in 2011 that he decided against offering Wi-Fi because most cafes lack life and energy.

"This is not a library. This is a cafe, and it should be loud from people's voices talking to each other, grinding coffee noise, steaming milk," Arandjelovic told the Red Eye.

In 2012, however, Caffe Streets added free Wi-Fi with the purchase of any drink.

"I'm not sure of the exact reason, but we switched over to Wi-Fi," a Caffe Streets barista said on Wednesday.

Arandjelovic also is planning to open Cafe Transit at 1558 N. Damen, inside the CTA Damen "L" station and directly next to La Colombe. The 80-square-foot stand inside a shuttered concession is intended just for commuters and won't offer any seating.

Stan's Donuts, next door at 1560 N. Damen Ave., plans to offer Wi-Fi when it opens next week, confirmed owner Rich Labriola.

"I guess it's great to stick to your values, but I think you have to provide the service your customers expect from you. In the coffee shop arena, I believe it's a benefit that loyal fans feel comfortable to hang out and use Wi-Fi," Labriola said.