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Cafes with cheap Wi-Fi turn the tables on office space

Getting out of her home and into the bustle of a Panera Bread in New Tampa, Annette Baker takes advantage of free Internet access to do business. “People joke that this is my office,” she says.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Getting out of her home and into the bustle of a Panera Bread in New Tampa, Annette Baker takes advantage of free Internet access to do business. “People joke that this is my office,” she says.

NEW TAMPA — At one table, a life coach goes over her handwritten notes about conquering adversity.

A recruiter nearby hashes out health insurance plans on his laptop.

Across the room, a woman in a wrap dress and 4-inch pumps sells a car security system over her cell phone.

But this is no office building, at least not a traditional one. These professionals have settled in to do a day's work — at Panera Bread, where silverware clinks against plates and toddlers squeal.

With telecommuting numbers on the rise and the economy down in the dumps, more and more professionals, including small business owners, are turning to wireless Internet cafes to conduct business.

At the Panera Bread in New Tampa, where the Internet connection flows as freely as the hot coffee refills, the number of "office workers" has risen about 20 percent over the past year, said Melanie Cunningham, general manager.

At one point, Cunningham shut down the free WiFi at lunchtime in hopes of freeing up space for customers who wanted to eat. Only then did she realize the force she was contending with: About 75 percent of her regulars come in with laptop computers.

"I got way too many bad e-mails," Cunningham said. "In the long run, the people actually sitting here and doing business were eating breakfast, lunch and dinner."

The same is true on the other side of the bay. About 70 percent of the clientele lug laptops to Panera Bread in St. Petersburg's Feather Sound area where wireless service is free, said manager Elaine Hushek. The cafe even has a meeting room.

At a Starbucks near downtown Tampa, it costs $3.99 for two hours of wireless service. Still, about 20 percent of the regular customers come in with laptops, said shift supervisor Sarah Myhre.

"It certainly is a trend that has boomed," said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a global outplacement company with headquarters in Chicago. "Some people might want to save the cost of wireless service, others might want to just get out from underneath the wheel at your home."

Gartner Dataquest , a worldwide informational technology research and advisory company that tracks technology trends, reported that 25 percent of workers telecommuted in 2007, and estimated that number to hit 27.5 percent this year.

Michele Camara, an outside sales representative for LoJack, works most days at her home, donning sweat pants. But once a week, she goes to the New Tampa Panera to escape a dog and two kids. To feel more professional, she puts on makeup and styles her hair. She recently slipped on a black-and-white dress and high heels, although clients on the other end of her cell phone couldn't see.

The only down side, she said, is having to step outside for phone calls when it gets too noisy.

Some stay for a few hours, others all day. About 1 percent don't buy anything, Cunningham said. To please both her work corps and her diners, she asks workers to free up tables by moving printers, laptops or files.

People who come to eat generally find seats away from the "cozy corner," which is prime real estate for the working visitor. It features two roomy leather chairs and several small tables. It's also where the outlets are to plug in laptops.

Jessie Romero, a 37-year-old recruiter for health insurance brokers, knows the place well. With his two boys lounging around their Wesley Chapel home for the summer, Romero needs a professional environment.

"When I'm at home, it's 'Daddy, play with me. Daddy, let's do this,' " he said. "I come here to concentrate."

He also arranges meetings with clients at Panera "because you don't want them meeting you at your house," he said.

Panera employees don't chat much with the regulars who always seem busy, Cunningham said.

Like the three women who come in almost every day, fan out papers in front of them, then secure their phone headsets to make calls.

Or the "nice gentleman" who comes monthly with a tomato crate filled with invoices and other paperwork.

For a week, one man plopped down at a small table near an entrance and stayed from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Job candidates met him with resumes in hand. He interviewed them one-by-one.

While professionals often keep to themselves, there's an unspoken code of trust in the "office." When someone goes to the bathroom or gets up to order food, many sets of eyes watch over the belongings.

"I don't feel too funny about leaving my laptop because I know everyone else is around," said Annette Baker, the life coach who comes three times a week.

All around, heads are down, fingers tap against keyboards.

But they don't forward jokes or beckon a colleague to look over their shoulders. They don't stand around the water cooler talking about the latest memo.

"Everyone is in their own little cocoon," Baker said. "It's like its own weird little community of workers. Everyone is doing their own thing but doing it together."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

Cafes with cheap Wi-Fi turn the tables on office space 07/18/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 20, 2009 2:30pm]
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