Steve Schmidt has been cheerfully getting his south Tempe neighbors caffeinated for almost nine years at Steve’s Espresso café, where he serves up bold French press coffee, loose-leaf teas and an array of baked delectables prepared in-house.
When it comes to wi-fi though, Schmidt does not mince words. Simply stated, he refuses to be the neighborhood ISP.
“Who said I have to have free wi-fi, anyway?” Schmidt cracks from the store’s patio on a busy Saturday.
He disconnected his store’s wi-fi connection about three weeks ago, something most people would consider a death knell for a coffee house operating in the Internet age.
“My really good customers who don’t even use the wi-fi are afraid I’m going to go out of business,” he said with a relaxed smile, adding that the shop had its most profitable day ever the previous weekend.
After years in the business, Schmidt said his decision to disengage from the Internet defies people’s perceptions about the No. 1 function of a coffee shop, and hopes it will facilitate more real-life human interaction.
“As I’ve watched my clientele change and see other coffee houses come and go,” Schmidt said, “you start to ask yourself what is really important and who are the majority of your customers.”
The core of Schmidt’s clientele is morning rush hour commuters and what he calls “coffee shop socializers,” so he has been focusing on providing good products and a lively atmosphere for that base.
“Warning: Lively setting and loud music,” reads a small, clever sign by the sugar and cream. “Steve’s is a place to enjoy life.”
Schmidt said he originally offered free wi-fi nearly a decade ago to keep up with his competition. Now he thinks the ubiquity of wi-fi has become a moot point. “Lowe’s has free wi-fi,” he said.
“Businesspeople think it’s this magical thing—it gives an aura of being on the cutting edge.”
He admits the shop has received a few smug online reviews and the occasional flummoxed customer that spots the wry “no wi-fi” signs.
On the other hand, he has heard from customers who think of his coffee house as an Internet-free oasis from their incessant email inboxes.
“Is the customer always right?” he shrugs. “Over the years, I’ve learned that you can’t please everyone. If you try to do that, it can be a recipe for disaster.”
Schmidt’s focus on only the most important aspects of the café business appears to be working.
Mike Bolitho, 29, brought his 42-year-old friend Gary Powell to Steve’s for some coffee and conversation.
He said the lack of wi-fi is not a make-or-break factor.
“It would be nice to have, but I’m here more for the atmosphere,” Bolitho said.
Jeannemarie Hormell, a project-management professor, agreed. She said she has been coming to Steve’s for two years.
“The atmosphere is good for conversation and studying,” she said, her computer and textbooks splayed on her table.
“I still come even though there’s no wi-fi.”
Though they have come on a particular Saturday for different purposes, Bolitho and Hormell said they both keep returning to Steve’s for the same reason.
They really like the coffee.
Steve’s Espresso is at 1801 E. Baseline Road, on the southeast corner of Baseline Road and McClintock Drive, facing McClintock. Hours: -5:30 a.m.-7 p.m. M-F; 6:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Phone: 480-777-5373.
By: Chase Kamp