Café con Leche, with a Side of Wi-Fi?

Students are surprised to find a maze of restrictions on when they can use laptops at Madrid coffee houses
A sign tells customers that laptop use is not allowed because it is a laptop-free table.
A sign tells customers that laptop use is not allowed because it is a “laptop-free table.”
Amelie Van Hess

Little placards with stock images of a crossed-out computer litter the tables at Federal Café in Madrid. One large square table, typically crammed full of headphone-wearing laptop users nervously struggling for the single outlet or biting their fingernails while staring at their fluorescent screens, stands nearly empty by the entrance. 

Today, there is not a laptop in sight, but instead three middle-aged women, chatting amongst themselves over their cafe con leche. Where typically sits a little black sign: “laptop-friendly table (:,” instead sits a vase of flowers.

“Today, no, it’s a holiday,” a stern-faced barista tells an eager young customer as she pulls her laptop out of her bag. The barista swiftly turns back to the espresso machine, without issuing an apology. Turns out that Friday, Dec. 9 (The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Spanish holiday) accompanies weekends on the list of circumstances that don’t permit laptop use.

Visiting students in Madrid, specifically those from the United States, run into a unique café protocol around laptop use. The city is home to over 45,181 international students, making it the number one student destination in Spain, according to the Communidad de Madrid.

Hard to work on weekends

Most cafés around Madrid fit into one (or more) of the following categories: no Wi-Fi, don’t allow laptops, laptops are only allowed at designated tables, laptops allowed — except on weekends, laptops allowed if the barista is your best friend, or laptops allowed if accompanied by a sense of urgency to drink your coffee and leave.

 The sources of the coffee-house resistance to laptop use appear to be cultural differences and profitability concerns.

“I’ve felt laptop shame for sure,” said Sophia Adams as she simulated opening an imaginary laptop, nervously shifting her eyes side to side. Adams is a fourth-year student at SLU-Madrid who has lived in Spain for over three years. She likes to get out of the house to do her school work, but she finds that most cafés have many rules on laptop use. 

Caroline Fields, an international studies and political science major at SLU-Madrid, went to a local coffee shop over the weekend with the goal of studying on her laptop, only to be rejected. “I was like –oh, my bad, sorry, and then I just ordered a coffee and then didn’t do any work, which was the reason for going,” said Fields. 

Maya Freking, a visiting student last semester, would usually just do schoolwork at her student housing to avoid arriving at a café only to have them tell her “no.” “It’s like, I just took the time to come here,” said Freking.

Mary Skakel, a third-year transfer student at SLU-Madrid, frequents the small coffee shop Slow Café near her apartment. The shop has a specific seating arrangement for laptop users, which  she discovered only after testing out every table and waiting for a barista to approve or deny: “The couch, no. The seat by the window, no. But then the standing table, yes,” explained Skakel.

Laptops are allowed at this large rectangular table at Monkee Coffee on Calle Vallehermoso, but consumers must earn each 45-minute installment of Wi-Fi access by ordering a drink or snack. (Amelie Van Hess)

Customers just talking

One day during fall semester, Skakel was studying at Slow Cafe, which entailed reading with a physical book and working on her laptop. She spent her whole study session jumping up and down between tasks: sitting on the couch with her book, moving to the designated table to use her laptop, then back to the couch. She made sure to follow the cafe’s laptop protocol, but at the same time she was occupying half of the cafe. Even so, Skakel, originally from Portland, appreciates the coffee shop culture in Spain. “Going to a coffee shop in Spain is way more about spending time with people or reading a book and reflecting on life. I love that you go to cafés and see people just talking,” said Skakel. “It’s funny also, because you are always allowed to be there as long as you want– just not with your computer.” 

In her opinion, Spaniards prioritize having time off of work. “Here weekends are sacred, and in the U.S. they are not,” she said. 

Diego Alaniz, a Mexican barista at Apapacho Café in the La Latina neighborhood, agreed with this aspect of the Spanish lifestyle. “They are literally two different lives,” said Alaniz with regard to work and leisure. “I think for Spain, it makes sense because that’s just not their lifestyle to work on the weekends.”

“A café should be for drinking coffee and talking to your friends, not writing an essay,” said Olivia Wendel, a third-year international studies and Spanish student at SLU-Madrid. “In the U.S. it’s kinda normalized because work kind of enters every part of your life, but I don’t think that that is a great thing.” Flecking highlighted the difference between the two countries, saying that the restrictions in Spain are “weird,” since in the U.S., cafés seem designed for working.

Laptops aren’t profitable

Money could also be related to laptop resistance in Spanish coffee shops. Alaniz, the barista, believes that, from a hospitality standpoint, the laptop-using client is an important demographic, — but only to a certain limit.

 “It’s just not profitable that a client be sitting for hours and consume only one drink. For the owner of a business, that can lead to large losses,” Alaniz said. 

Monkee Coffee, a popular café for SLU-Madrid students near campus, has come up with one solution: make the consumer earn their Wi-Fi access. The quaint, plant-filled café caters to laptop users by offering a large table for workers, but it comes with a caveat: each purchase buys you only 45-minutes of Wi-Fi access, until it’s time to buy another matcha latte. 

These café stipulations leave students in Madrid with limited options, especially during the weekend or the evenings. But SLU-Madrid students have found one laptop-safe haven to rely on: Starbucks. 

“At Starbucks you can sit there for five hours, and they will not really care,” said Wendel.  

Fields added: “I like the idea of being a cute-café girly and go to a bunch of different ones, but Starbucks is the only one I know, without a doubt, I won’t be, like, challenged or confronted about using a computer.” 

What about a library? According to Skakel, public library spaces are limited on weekends. But Starbucks are abundant. The Madrid region boasts over 54 Starbucks locations, according to Google Maps. They can count on student business, with the exception of Sophia Adams.

“Recently, I’ve been going to Starbucks and not buying anything,” Adams said. “I steal their Wi-Fi and go get a drink from somewhere else.” She also confessed that she has adopted aspects of Spain café culture into her home life in the U.S. “Now I notice that when I’m home I got to a coffee shop to enjoy it and get a muffin- as opposed to just getting a black coffee to fuel my brain,” Adams said. 

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