A growing number of cafes are ditching wifi and outlawing computers in an attempt to bring back old-fashioned hospitality – and increase their revenue
The sign on the door could not be clearer: “This is a laptop-free zone.” The message is underscored by a cartoon computer with a sad face – and another sign indicating there is no wifi inside.
Welcome to Dough Lover, the latest addition to Brighton’s ever-expanding roster of coffee shops – and the most upfront example yet of the growing pushback in this tech-loving city against the legion of freelance workers (me included) who much prefer to work in cafes than in their own front rooms.
On a business trip to Yemen in 2015, Californian Mokhtar Alkhanshali was stranded when civil war broke out. Abandoned by his government and the airport bombed, he was forced to find his own way home …
In the spring of 2015, I met Mokhtar Alkhanshali outside the Blue Bottle Coffee headquarters in Oakland, California. He had just returned from Yemen, having narrowly escaped with his life. An American citizen, Mokhtar was abandoned by his government and left to evade Saudi bombs and Houthi rebels. He had no means to leave. The airports had been destroyed and the roads out of the country were impassable. There were no evacuations planned, no assistance provided. The United States state department had stranded thousands of Yemeni Americans, who were forced to devise their own means of fleeing a blitzkrieg – tens of thousands of US-made bombs dropped on Yemen by the Saudi air force. The way Mokhtar escaped was brazen and astonishing, but was only the last in a series of remarkable leaps of courage and self-invention that Mokhtar had made in a few short years. He had grown up poor, in a Yemeni-American family of nine living in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district – in many ways the city’s most troubled neighbourhood. While trying to get a college degree, he took a job as a doorman in a residential high-rise called the Infinity. It paid adequately but he was uninspired, and he spent his days vibrating, expecting great things of himself but unsure what shape his dreams would take.
One day a friend told him that across the street from his desk at the Infinity was an enormous statue of what appeared to be a Yemeni man with his hands raised overhead, drinking from a cup of coffee. This seemed to be the kind of sign he was looking for. It turned out that the statue was the old symbol of Hills Brothers coffee, their headquarters having been in downtown San Francisco for decades. The statue began a feverish journey of discovery, on which Mokhtar learned that coffee had first been cultivated in Yemen, and that for centuries the port of Mokha was the centre of the world’s coffee trade. The Yemeni coffee trade had fallen on hard times, though – it was known now for its unreliable quality and the few remaining farmers still growing coffee were largely aimless and impoverished.