When you want to get out of the house and work in a new environment, many head for the local Starbucks. Starbucks locations are easy to find no matter where you are, and the experience is consistent. Jazzy music, dark earth tones, small tables, limited non-coffee menu and sparse outlets. The reason we’re there is the reasonably reliable TMobile Hotspot wifi priced at $6 for an hour, $9.99 for 24 hours, or monthly plans starting at $29.99 if you commit to a year. Minor ambience or menu changes aside, you know what you’ll get when you walk in, even if you’re in a new-to-you Starbucks in a new town.
Here are a few other franchises that offer the essentials of web working: wifi, food/beverages, power outlets and no one expecting you to leave the minute you finish whatever you’ve ordered to eat or drink.
Panera Bread. According to Panera’s website, there are 940 locations across the country that offer free wifi. This is primo web working territory if you have a location near you. It’s certainly my first choice. There are a wide variety of table configurations in its large dining rooms, from booths, bar stools, square and round tables and couches so you can settle down as you feel comfortable. The lighting is excellent. The menu is a wide variety of breakfast/lunch foods. I don’t know if this is specific to our local Panera Bread, but at the Princeton, NJ location I go to there is a corner of the dining room that is particularly web worker friendly. A bit more isolated from the rest of the dining room and two, count ’em two power outlets. The wifi is free, as are the fountain drink and coffee refills. My only complaint, and once again this may be the particular location, is that the music is played too loud. Headphones are a must and phone calls are best taken outside.
Borders Books. If you have a T-Mobile Hotspot account and you’re tired of fighting for a table at Starbucks, then head for your local Borders instead. Most, if not all of the cafes are Seattle’s Best Coffee shops now, still T-Mobile hotspots. Lighting and access to power outlets will vary widely location to location, but tend to be much better than Starbucks. Expect to have to leave for lunch, as the non-bakery foods are not very good. If you are near Penn Station/Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, the Seattle’s Best Coffee cafe on the 2nd floor of the Borders next door is particularly comfy for web working. And you have the added bonus of being able to flip through a real, live book during down time.
Barnes & Noble. These bookstores have wifi by AT&T FreedomLink. Monthly services starts at $19.99 per month, which is more reasonable than T-Mobile. For those not wanting to make a monthly commitment, you can buy prepaid access in smaller increments. Many Barnes & Noble stores now have their cafe in the center of the store, so while the location is good for a quick check of email over coffee, it’s not ideal for extended stays. I’ve yet to see an easily accessible power outlet close to the cafe in any location, but that’s doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
McDonalds. I suppose there’s no point in commenting about the quality of the food, is there? If you’re used to surfing with a latte at your side, this isn’t where you want to head. However, if you have watch of the kids and you’re on a deadline, the time spent at a McDonald’s with your laptop might not be terrible. Definitely hold off unless there are no other options. Pricing is reasonable compared to other not-free services, at just $2.95 for 2 hours.
Cosi. Cosi is more of a lunch place than a coffee shop, with locations primarily in the Northeast and California. The wifi is through Surf & Sip, and has been free since the middle of 2006. Lighting is not as good as it could be, and the few locations I’ve been to have been very noisy. Not my first choice if a Panera Bread can be found.
Admittedly, these are franchises with locations in the Northeast United States. Do you have any coffee/lunch franchise shops to recommend in your part of the world? Share in the comments.