The Coffeeshop Economy

Eric Johnson relaxes on the plush,  burgundy couch at Starbucks in Cotswold, his left hand curled around an iced coffee. His right hand rests on the track pad of his silver Dell. He stares at his screen. He has Mr. T muscles, the kind so big his elbows can’t touch his sides. A sports double threat, he made his way to Western Carolina University from Ocean Isle Beach on a football-baseball scholarship. He played for the Chicago Bears for a season. He also played for the Cleveland Indians. He’s like Charlotte’s Bo Jackson.

Johnson comes to this Starbucks a lot—it’s just a short drive from the gym he recently started, TriFecta Athletics. “I come in here between clients, when I have an hour or two to kill,” he says. “I just surf my gym’s website, make sure it all looks OK; I answer emails.”

But he lives nearby—he could do all of that at home. It’s not about the work. It’s not about venti mochas. He likes Starbucks because of the combination of free Wi-Fi and prospecting, and that keeps him coming back. “I meet a lot of people here,” he says. “People recognize me from the work I’ve done around town. It’s a really great way for me to network.”

He’s not alone.

Walk into a coffeeshop in Charlotte almost any time of day and you’ll find the old standards: friends catching up over caramel lattes, students filling out flash cards. But you’ll also notice another group of people, floating in a sea of opened laptops, Excel sheets fanned about, their vibrating smartphones pirouetting on tabletops. They come here to conduct meetings, to meet potential clients, to brainstorm the next big startup, really to escape the monotony of the home office and experience what the workplace of old once provided—camaraderie. They’re not novelists. They’re not hipsters flipping through Flickr. They are Charlotte’s  coffeeshop economy.

On an early Tuesday morning at Amelie’s in NoDa, a spirited trio—two men and a woman—debate the free speech zones implemented during the Democratic National Convention. They’re loud, serious. Surrounded by Parisian knickknacks and funky French furniture, it’s a little hard to take them seriously, but one of the men commands attention—he’s livid. The woman chimes in: “But our cell phones are monitored! Our lives aren’t private! This is not what our country was intended to be!” It’s not uncommon for the local coffeeshop—friends getting together, holding court while they sip Americanos.

At a large adjacent table, a woman in a tweed newsboy cap and huge, dangly earrings looks up at the rowdy group but mostly keeps to herself. She’s not dressed for work in the traditional sense, but she’s surrounded by papers and file folders, her laptop open. Trisha Johnson is a family therapist with Carolina’s Creative Counseling, a mental health agency that provides mostly in-home clinical care to Medicaid patients in crisis. She comes to Amelie's most days to get her work done. “When I’m here, I’m mostly filing paperwork,” she says. “Every time I meet with a client, I have to file progress notes with the state.”

She spends about four hours and $10 to $15 a day—around $300 a month—at Amelie’s. “I just can’t get anything done at home,” she says. “I’m not productive there, especially if there’s anything that needs to be cleaned.” And Amelie’s has a great sense of camaraderie, she adds. “If I have to get work done,” she says, “I’ll go somewhere else where I don’t know as many people.”

Coffeehouses were the original chat rooms. But more recently, with the breakneck growth of wireless technology—iPads that can Skype with Singapore and smartphones that can open and close your garage door when you’re not home—increased mobility has transformed the traditional office, which for many is now their corner coffeeshop.

A lot of people don’t want to stay at home all day, says Mona Rhee, owner of Dilworth Coffee on East Boulevard. “People don’t want to be isolated,” she says. “We have a lot of consultants who come in and use [the coffeeshop] as a meeting place, and they definitely love the free Wi-Fi.” Despite the modest size of the café, Rhee isn’t concerned with the “parkers,” those who set up shop all day and thwart turnover. “I’m not worried about that at all,” she says. “I’d rather have the customers.”

According to the U.S. Census, more than 16,000 Charlotteans work from home, which is almost double the amount that did in 2000. But that statistic doesn’t account for people who have offices they don’t work from.

Tim Ross is one of three producers of local radio station WFAE’s morning show, Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. He’s been working from he calls his “mobile office” for years, and he’s worked in coffeeshops from Mooresville to Ballantyne. “I do my entire job at the coffeeshop,” he says. “I do research, I book guests, I look for future show possibilities.”

He has an office, but he can just as easily do his work outside his cube. “I work alone all day,” Ross says. “There’s a weird distraction that comes with utter silence. I like the white noise and the people all around me at coffeeshops. Isolation is distracting.”

It’s also part of his job to know people. As we sit diagonally from each other in the middle of Caribou Coffee on East Boulevard, Ross’s shop of choice, it’s no surprise when we run into someone he knows—a cameraman who also came to Caribou, laptop in tow, to get some work done. The three of us shoot the breeze a bit. “That’s another thing,” Ross says. “Being out gives me ideas. I’ve come up with great show ideas because of someone who came up to me [in a coffeeshop].”

And while the prospect of never changing out of pajamas appeals to some stay-at-home workers, others find that the Dr. Seuss–size piles of dirty dishes and lack of peace and quiet in their home offices make productivity impossible.

Andrea Schultz and Kathy Hood are sisters who have been in Charlotte for about eight years. Most days they hang out side by side, working at Dilworth Coffee in Matthews. It’s a decent-sized coffeeshop, kind of country-quaint, in an area of town near old staples like Renfrow Hardware. “I know many more people who work from home than at work,” Hood says. They sit in oversize chairs with wicker backs, laptops propped up on their bended knees. Schultz is a Web designer and Kathy codes HTML. “Coming in here helps me focus,” Schultz says. “Otherwise I’m thinking about doing the laundry or dishes. And [working at home] can feel claustrophobic.”

It’s loud in the shop. The deafening hiss of the espresso machine is no match for the trains chugging by just a block away. During our meeting, an elderly man actually has a medical emergency. An ambulance roars up, firemen rush through, white backboard in tow. Concentrating on work in this setting is a challenge for only the most gifted of noise-blockers.

“I have kids,” Schultz says. “So it’s easy to block [noise] out. It’s easier for me to block out other people than to block out all there is to do at home.” A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that, compared to a quiet environment, a moderate level of ambient noise—say the noise level of a roadside diner or a mall—enhances performance on creative tasks. According to the authors: “For individuals looking for creative solutions to daily problems, instead of burying oneself in a quiet room trying to figure out a solution, walking out of one’s comfort zone and getting into a relatively noisy environment (such as a café) may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas.”

Chuck Barger opened up Common Market in South End about three-and-a-half years ago. He touts the shop as a true “third space”—not home, not the office, but the other place you hang out all the time. But for more and more people, Barger’s third space has become an office.

Barger’s old job—he spent fifteen years in high tech—was no match for his current role as Charlotte’s master introducer. He talks to everyone, tries tirelessly to remember what each one does, and is known for his ability to link people up—introductions that often result in business opportunities for his patrons. “It’s part of the whole third-space culture for me, and it was something I intended to foster from the beginning,” he says.

He provides an alternative to the traditional prospective-client golf game, and you don’t have to worry about your handicap. “I do see more people ‘working from home’ in my place.” He says he’s seen more laptops and had a lot more guests asking for charging outlets. “We’ve really established a culture of helping people meet other people, and I think that’s rubbed off on our customers, too,” he adds. “We have regulars who don’t mind introducing people around now.”

Jennifer Moxley is one of those people. A television reporter turned freelance producer, she says she has no reason to go to an office even though she and her business partner do rent studio space uptown. The name of her company says it all: Nomadic Communications. She uses the rented space only when she has to and prefers conducting meetings at Common Market, mostly because of the hassle of parking uptown. “I prefer to meet them here,” she says. “It’s easier, and it’s right outside of the city.”

Crowds and music don’t bother her. “I’m used to a newsroom, a very social environment,” she says. “I have to have that stimulus.” And she’s always meeting new people. “Chuck’s introduced me to so many people,” she says. “I met one guy here with his own camera gear, so I’ll call on him now when I need his specific type of equipment.”

Taking third-space networking to a whole other level, a couple of locals thought: What if we rent out co-working space for remote workers? Tyler Ford had worked in merchandising for Tommy Hilfiger for more than ten years, but in 2009, a few of his friends had also lost jobs, so they decided to go in together and start Lightbulb Creative.

By transforming an old warehouse into a trendy workspace, with a conference room and free coffee to boot, they’re able to charge $50 a month for a desk and a lamp and $300 a month for full-on office space. “When you work from home, you lose that sense of what was good about working at an office,” Ford says. “People are looking for community; they can’t just stare at the same four walls every day.”

He says Lightbulb tends to attract tech-oriented workers. “A lot of subcontracting goes on here,” he says. “So if a Web developer needs a designer, or a designer needs a copywriter, you get to meet people and vet them in person.”

And he’s gotten something right: as of early September, Lightbulb had thirty-seven tenants, and in October, the company changed its name to Industry Coworking, moved into a new building, and doubled its space.

Back at Starbucks, Eric Johnson works on his gym website and answers emails. He sits in the middle of the room, but with his back against the wall, the perfect vantage point to see who comes in and who leaves. He chats up some people around us. People wave at him.

Then, a middle-aged woman sporting blonde, kinky curls and neon-sign-loud Capri pants yanks open one side of the double doors. She spots Johnson. “Hey,” she mouths, waving and smiling big. “I know her from the Y,” Johnson tells me. As she makes her way toward the cash register, curls bouncing, he jumps up. “I gotta go get some water,” he says.

Turns out, the woman and her husband have a son who’s touring college campuses looking into baseball programs. She’s considering getting him some additional, targeted baseball training, she tells Johnson. That’s what his gym provides. Bingo. —V. B.