A Coffee With Your Business Venture?

More and more people are escaping the temptations of home and the distractions of the workplace for virtual offices in cafes.

When the corruption scandal at the Tax Authority broke a month ago, it became clear that accountant Kobi Ben Gur had no official office, but instead managed his affairs at Cafe Joe on HaHashmonaim street in Tel Aviv. Ben Gur had a regular table by the window, reported TheMarker, which safely overlooked the cafe-goers but was sufficiently hidden to hold discreet conversations.

Strategic spots such as these, by an electric socket in a cafe with wireless internet access, have become substitutes for offices - and not just among accused felons. Fortunately, it's quite unusual to see someone sitting in front of his computer with his feet on the adjacent seat, yelling into his cellular phone as though he were in his own private office. But those who sit for hours in front of their laptops, over lattes and croissants, have become a regular sight indeed. About a week ago at the Tola'at Sfarim cafe, near Kikar Rabin in Tel Aviv, a customer sat, working diligently on a project. He was so deeply focused on his writing that the two women who walked into the cafe and sat near him actually felt uncomfortable. "I'm disrupting his work," one whispered.

Goodbye loneliness

Last October, The Seattle Times ran a story explaining how in the age of mobile communication, any cafe or bookstore could become an office. The article stated that many people spend a large part of their day in virtual branches of their offices.

E., who lectures in photography and is studying for her B.A. in psychology, regularly grabs a place by the window in Cafe Masaryk, in Masaryk Square in Tel Aviv. There, in front of her laptop, with papers scattered on the table and earphones plugged into her ears, she writes lectures and prepares for exams. E. says that she started working regularly from the cafe after renovations began in her apartment building. "The noise was driving me crazy," she says, "I come here to get some quiet." She smiles, aware of the irony of her comment. "This is white noise, it can be ignored."

D., who is writing his doctorate and preparing lectures on Western medicine at Espresso Bar on Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv, stresses E.'s point: "This noise is not your own." D.'s baby stays at home with the nanny, making it impossible for him to concentrate there.

A coffee shop is a place where you can maintain your anonymity, says D., and at the same time it prevents feelings of loneliness. E. agrees: "People know to ignore you, not to bother you but on the other hand there is also a certain atmosphere among the regulars who come to work here. This week, an author sat here and started talking about Heidegger. I just had to eavesdrop."

M., an architect who sits at Cafe Landver on Ibn Gvirol in Tel Aviv, tells of the convivial relations among the laptop crowd. Whenever she goes to the restroom, she says she signals to an elderly author who always sits in his usual corner, to keep an eye on her belongings. She later returns the favor. A., a student and editor, makes an effort to arrive early at Cafe Noah on Ehad Ha'am Street in Tel Aviv, to claim one of the many tables that get occupied in the morning by laptop users.

Near the restroom

"I hold all of my meetings here, except for dates," says E. "I help my students. It's nicer here than at the college. The coffee's better, and the atmosphere is less formal. I can easily sit here six or seven hours a day. I already have my work regimen. At the cafe I feel obligated to write, even though once in a while I'll escape to iTunes and listen to music on my headphones."

E. explains that the work she does from the cafe doesn't substitute the work she does at the office, only the work she would otherwise do at home. And at home, as D. testifies, there are temptations: TV, radio, books. He says, "At home you can get up and wander around instead of working. At a cafe you won't start reading just a few pages of a book and then find yourself waking up from a deep slumber on the couch two hours later."

E. doesn't even live near Cafe Masaryk anymore. Her apartment is being renovated, and she drives all the way to the cafe from Rishon Letzion. Technology may allow mobility, but it turns out that the human spirit still seeks out stability and routine. "I've been coming here for almost a year now, and they've seen me at some of my toughest moments," says E. "I am loyal to this place."

D. moved to Espresso Bar only recently, after his local cafe hinted that they weren't enthusiastic about his lingering presence. "I sit down in the morning and get up in the afternoon," he explains. "In the former cafe, I would sit by the restroom, meaning, the most unappealing seat in the place, the one that would probably stay empty even if I weren't there. At Espresso Bar I also sit near the smoking section. I'll always order more than I feel like eating, to justify my long stay. I arrive at around 8 or 9 A.M., order a large coffee and a sandwich, read newspapers, plug in my computer and start working. An hour before I leave I order mint tea."

Getting out of sweat pants

There are many regulars at Resto-Bar cafe in Jerusalem; these include lawyers and journalists with their computers. Uri Brown, the bartender, tells of a married couple that until recently sat there every day for long hours in front of their computers.

Most of the cafe owners are tolerant of the virtual offices that have been set up in their places of business. Gil Yaacobi, the owner of Cafe Masaryk, recalls how two years ago he installed a wireless internet system for the working customers. "It has really caught on in the last couple of years," he says. He personally is a technophobe who doesn't dare approach a computer, but he understands the need to work outside of home. "It forces you to get up in the morning, get dressed, put on makeup, instead of putting on another pair of sweat suits and staying at home. On the other hand," he says, "People also come here in sweat suits."

Uri Ronen, an architect from Haifa who also designs restaurants and cafes, and who tends to sit with his laptop at Toot in Merkaz Ha'Carmel says that today planners take into consideration scattering electric outlets by the seats. "Sometimes we plan areas that allow privacy for business meetings, and there are also areas designated for laptops users," he explains. "It seems to me that the people who work long hours from cafes are on some half vacation. Working at a cafe gives them incentive to get up, get dressed, shave, like going to the office."

Cafe owners are interested in welcoming these customers, but do not want all of their clients to follow in their stead. At Hillel on Nahmani Street in Tel Aviv, they got rid of the power splitters, says D. Barak Hershkowitz, owner of Cafe Landver. Hershkowitz admits that at his cafe, "there are also 'settlements,' especially of freelance workers. Today they asked us to install a few power outlets outside." He still hasn't decided whether or not to fulfill their request. A cafe is a place "that has it all": Instead of viewing the working crowd as people who take up tables, Hershkowitz says he sees those invited to business meetings as future customers.

D. is not optimistic, and claims that "sooner or later this phenomenon will come to an end. It doesn't make sense that cafes will want this to continue." And yet, more and more coffee shops, such as Tazza D'oro on Shevazi Street in Tel Aviv, are acquiring wireless Internet access. Masaryk's Yaacobi says it does not bother him when a customer stays for an entire day: "What's the difference between a customer like this and someone who comes in to read a book and orders a bottle of water? If you don't provide this kind of service, you're shooting yourself in the foot."