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BusINess » Business Consumer Technology » Wi-Fi gives restaurants, coffee shops a jolt in business

Wi-Fi gives restaurants, coffee shops a jolt in business

Marko Teovski and Endzi Stojanovska, both of Crown Point, browse the Internet using Wi-Fi at the Panera Bread in Merrillville. Like the national chain, many locally-owned coffee shops and restaurants are luring customers with free wireless service. (Photograph by The Times.)

Marko Teovski and Endzi Stojanovska, both of Crown Point, browse the Internet using Wi-Fi at the Panera Bread in Merrillville. Like the national chain, many locally-owned coffee shops and restaurants are luring customers with free wireless service. (Photograph by The Times.)

Each day after work, Dave Csuk stops at the Blackbird Cafe, checks his email, slides an iPod from a fabric case and listens to music for a few hours before heading home.

“If office is hell and home is heaven, this is purgatory,” he said. “It’s a perfect in-between.”

Mary Koselke bought the cafe in February 2009 and changed the name. Wireless Internet is central to her success, she said.

The small coffee shop in downtown Valparaiso, tucked neatly among other small businesses, is not unique in its use of wireless Internet to attract and retain customers. A Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant across the street uses Wi-Fi to attract a different crowd.

What the two businesses share is the desire to lure loyal customers who spend more time and money than they otherwise would have.

Koselke said fusing a welcoming social atmosphere and quality service—along with constant Internet access—has helped build a diverse and loyal clientele.

One customer even showed up when the shop was closed and sat outside using the Internet, she said.

What would a coffee shop be without Wi-Fi?

“It would be like going to a coffee shop . . . that didn’t serve coffee. Even if I’m reading, I have a laptop on,” said Barry Morris, a casino consultant who travels two or three times each month for work.

He said Wi-Fi technology has become standard—almost taken for granted.

Koselke agreed, saying the business benefits are numerous.

“I don’t think we’d be able to have this place without it . . . it’s the expectation of people. It’s a big deal for students, plus businesspeople use it, too,” she said. “We have real estate agents who meet clients here and show them properties on their laptops before taking them out.”

People also can stream movies or video clips, listen to music while they read or be accessible via email or Facebook while sipping tea or socializing with peers.

Rheagene Sahm, a regional manager of Buffalo Wild Wings who oversees three Illinois and five Indiana restaurants, said fantasy football has driven demand at her locations.

The wireless Internet hardware was installed just in time for fantasy drafts before last year’s season, filling a downtime between Major League Baseball’s All-Star break and the beginning of football season.

“What’s usually a slow time right before football has increased,” she said. “With the back-to-school and everything else, it’s usually a slower time. Being able to draft has boosted business a little bit.”

At Anthony’s Cafe in Highland, wireless Internet has been free to customers for six years.

“We get a lot of business individuals coming in that need access to the Internet,” owner Anthony Fenyves said. “The Town Council, a lot of business from hotels where you have business clientele. We did have to buy a router and some equipment. But for the investment it was well worth it, and it’s an additional service the customers appreciate.”

Not everyone’s on the Wi-Fi (broad)bandwagon

Though the technology itself isn’t new, it hasn’t caught on yet among many of the region’s small businesses, according to Monica Rubio, chairwoman of the small business committee for the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce.

Robert Mendoza, owner of El Salto Mexican Restaurant in Munster, said his establishment “isn’t that kind of place.”

While he’s toyed with the idea of offering Wi-Fi, Mendoza ultimately decided against it.

“We’re not a cafe where people sit down and drink coffee,” he said. “People come here on business, but they have a business or lunch meeting. They drink and eat and they’re on their way.”

Rubio, however, said she sees the technology as a way for smaller eateries to catch up to larger chains, some of which have offered free Wi-Fi for years.

“Right now in the economy that everyone’s going through, there are struggles among small businesses. But you have to look at different avenues to help increase the traffic in your business, and that possibly could attract new clients,” she said.

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