Plug in and Profit

Harness the tech-savvy all-day diner base to boost revenue.

Toting laptops and power cords, these customers typically order a drink and maybe some food. 

They’ll stake out a table and stay for hours, slurping up Wi-Fi and electricity. Are they freeloaders who should be shunned, or customers worth embracing?

If you chose the latter, you’re onto something. These customers are digital nomads—freelancers and independent contractors—whose population is growing. Catering to them can pay off.

“Having a good place for people to work can be as much of an attraction as the food we sell,” says Larry Margulies, owner of Pavement Coffeehouse, which has six Boston-area locations. “But it’s a tricky balance because as an owner, you still need to maximize dollar per seat per hour.” 

Nearly 54 million Americans—more than one-third of the workforce—freelance, according to a 2015 Edelman study. And they’re not only moonlighters: Nearly 20 million freelancers identify as independent contractors, who don’t have a traditional employer. Analysts expect the numbers to grow as more companies outsource and technology allows workers to connect from anywhere.   

“More places are making a visible effort to appeal to these so-called digital nomads who want to stay and linger for a while,” says Jill Failla, consumer insights editor at research firm Technomic. Starbucks, for instance, has been lending free wireless phone chargers and offering complimentary drink refills for loyalty card holders. 

Other operators are expanding food offerings, focusing on high-margin items like healthy wraps and upscale meals. Those tweaks have helped buoy the $39 billion coffee and snack shop segment’s bottom line: Revenues are on track to grow at an annualized rate of 4.3 percent from 2011 to 2016, according to the latest IBIS World report. 

Make Your Wi-Fi Work for You

Reliable access to the internet is table stakes for any remote worker—but free, unlimited Wi-Fi can encourage crowding without covering the cost of an industrial router and enough bandwidth to support 50-plus people at a time. 

“When we had no Wi-Fi, people grumbled and left; when we had free Wi-Fi, people would hang out writing all day, and other diners would come in, order a sandwich and have nowhere to sit,” says Margulies. The compromise that worked to minimize the crowds and buoy revenues: a two-hour Wi-Fi time limit, at which point diners are automatically kicked offline and asked by a third-party service if they’d like to purchase an internet day pass. That means the diner who’s been online all day is a paying customer—even if she hasn’t bought anything since breakfast. “And now I make a couple thousand dollars a month selling Wi-Fi,” Margulies says. 

Fuel Their Whole Day

Coffee is just a start. “We definitely see diners who want to eat substantial meals while working on a laptop,” says Merisa Vertti, manager of Grim’s Provisions & Spirits in Seattle. The establishment’s upscale grilled cheese with tomato bisque and cheeseburger with caramelized onions are favorites, she says. 

At Pavement, bagels from the on-site bakery and breakfast sandwiches piled high with sausage, smoked Gouda and red pepper jam, or eggs, goat cheese and blistered tomato help get folks in the door. But when hunger strikes a few hours later, many digital nomads stick around for lunch. The menu ranges from a creole chicken Caesar to breaded eggplant and mozzarella on focaccia. “We want to make it as easy as possible for people to spend another $3 or another $5 or another $13,” Margulies says. 

Remote workers pulling long shifts at restaurants will also vary their drink order as the day wears on. “The draft beer is pretty popular with people on computers,” says Vertti. 

At Bolsa Mercado in Dallas, the drink of choice switches around 4 p.m. as well. “It’s still very much the computer crowd, but they’re more relaxed, having a late bite and a $5 beer, finishing up their reports,” says Director of Operations Justo Blanco. 

Send Them Home With Food

The end of a workday presents another meal opportunity. Blanco experimented with meal kits—prepped ingredients and instructions for preparing at home.

 But the kits didn’t sell well, so instead he now offers fully prepped meals for two. 

“It’s something people grab after finishing up their afternoon here, throw in the oven for 15 minutes, and have a hot meal at home,” says Blanco. Digital nomads like that the meals are distinct from Bolsa Mercado’s daytime menu (think meatloaf with mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts). And the cafe only offers one option a day, based on whatever it’s making for its catering business. That helps streamline kitchen prep and slash food waste, says Blanco, and it keeps boredom at bay for regular diners.

Go for the Roving Computer Crowd

If your cafe makes a killer work spot, don’t just shout it from the social rooftops. Consider partnering with local co-working organizations to tap directly into this diner segment. Bolsa Mercado partners with Common Desk, a co-working space across the street, to attract new diners with exclusive specials, like two breakfast tacos and an espresso for $5. “We’re marketing directly to them, and now on any given day, 10 percent of our customers might come from those shared offices,” says Blanco. As the partnership’s grown, both sides have found other ways to leverage their strengths, like the co-working organization using the restaurant for an events space and picking up the tab for some of Bolsa’s paper goods. “It’s about getting our brand out there,” he says. “We want to be known for our food—and for being a great place to work.” 

Sit And Stay

Want to be the go-to eatery for digital nomads? Here’s what you need. 

Consistent Hours: Most digital nomads work on their own schedules, so set hours that appeal to them. That means keeping the same hours during the week and the weekend if possible.

Plenty of Outlets: Making power accessible conveys to the digital nomad that you care about customer service.

Mellow Music: The music needs to fit the vibe of your restaurant overall, but keeping the tunes low-key but upbeat is important. Watch the
volume, too.

Loyalty Program: Offer a rewards program aimed at increasing sales of higher-priced menu items or  to-go options. The rewards can run the gamut from every 10th coffee is free to half-priced to-go entrees.