The Age of Cyber Cafes

With annual sales of lattes and mochas reaching nearly $8.4 billion in the United States, coffee and computers have become the next inseparable pair, like baseball and hot dogs or peanut butter and jelly. If Starbucks can cash in, why not the local campus hang-out?

It’s certainly working with Isaac’s Grill at Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn. This short-order eatery parked in the Bartlett Hall student center slings burgers, grills hot dogs and drops fries to tide over hungry students milling around the post office and bookstore on that same floor. When infrastructure administrator Mark Fugate noticed the number of students hanging around the area, many with their laptop computer flipped open to key papers and notes, the obvious slapped him in the head.

“I mentioned it to our food services manager, and he was all for it. He got really excited about giving kids another reason to hang out there because he knows the longer they stay, the more they’ll smell the chocolate chip cookies and buy one. It was the logical place,” says Fugate.

In January 2005, Isaac’s Grill, named after one of the founders of this 200-year institution, joined the world of cyber cafés.

The Menu

But opening a cyber café is a far cry from“build it and they will come.” Tracy Tyree, dean of Student Life at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., freely admits their first foray into marrying coffee and computers didn’t fly. Students rarely used the five computer stations because Encore Café, as it is known, lacks one main ingredient: location.

“That facility is not in a pass-through kind of place. It’s a destination point,” she says, describing the snack bar. “Students have a computer lab in this same building if they’re heading somewhere in particular. I mean, you don’t take your backpack and computer to dinner, do you?”

Far better, administrators at Susquehanna reasoned, to place the computers along the beaten path, where students and faculty are more likely to be milling around for five or 10 minutes. As soon as the Mellon Lounge in the student center completes its renovation, Tyree will move the stand-up computer stations to Java City, the coffee kiosk located in a large commons area on the top floor.

Money, she says, isn’t the driving force behind this decision. From a college administrator’s point of view, the name of this motivation game is student satisfaction. Cynthia Cooper, director of Public Affairs at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., agrees. It established Café.edu two years ago, but not to increase food sales — in fact, since it was born as an Internet spot, these executives don’t even have the data to indicate whether surfing impacts the number of fries students consume.

“The cyber service was established to simply help meet the students’ technology needs. If we hadn’t put the computers at Café.edu, we probably would have found another location,” says Cooper.

But colleges certainly aren’t blind to the financial possibilities, either. “I imagine food sales could be a benefit. Java City itself has been a phenomenal addition in the last two years. Coffee and smoothie sales will be a nice by-product to enhance an already good thing,” Tyree notes.

Indeed, administrators at Maryville College expect heartening results at the conclusion of their pilot semester. Bill Seymour, vice president for Administrative Services, has personally eyeballed 13 to 15 users at a time hanging out at Isaac’s Grill. “And that’s huge for us, especially since they brought their own equipment to use it,” he notes.

The Technical Points

Regardless of whether you choose a computer-station model like Susquehanna or wireless like Maryville, start-up costs shouldn’t present a barrier, say these college administrators. Fugate took the wireless path because his future cyber café is located in a building that’s more than 100 years old, complete with thick cinder block, brick and drywall that make drilling for new wires a daunting task. He used a more modern drop ceiling to accomplish his needs.

“These older buildings are built like bomb shelters, so the signal isn’t as good as we’d like, but it does reach out as far as a little porch outside of the café,” he reports. Nearly one in every five students arrives on campus lugging a personal laptop, of which a majority are equipped with wireless capabilities. So his bill came to only $350 for the industrial-class access point; the IT staff handled the installation to the college’s network. His maintenance this semester consisted of rebooting the system once when a system log filled up.

“From our standpoint, it’s been very little hassle, which is obviously a huge benefit because we never need another project to put on our plate,” Fugate says. “So far, I’ve not had to help that first student set up his computer to connect to it. It’s basically zero administration.”

Susquehanna chose stand-up stations to enhance students’ laptops — a quick way to check e-mail without powering up, a convenient way to look up a time or address while on the way. Physical stations, however, do come with their own set of concerns. “If we put them in a more visible place, they need to be more secure against damage. We had to explore whether our IT department was willing to support these in a different way than we’ve needed support in other locations,” Tyree notes.

The experiment is going so well for Maryville that even without hard numbers currently in hand, Fugate advocates adding the cyberspace component to another proposed coffee shop down the line. “Students are excited about wireless spots, and certainly, if we can do it without spending too much money and without adding too much of a load on the IT department, we’re all for it as well,” he notes.