Beans, bites and bytes Social: The owner of the OnLine Cafe, a coffeehouse with terminals to access the Internet, says the Rockville site is so successful he wants to expand to a half-dozen other cities, starting with Baltimore.

March 07, 1996|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Yin and yang, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, salt and pepper, coffee and computers.

Brian A. Colella is betting everything that the last pairing will become as popular as the first three combinations. Mr. Colella is the owner of OnLine Cafe, a Rockville coffeehouse that serves your favorite caffeinated beverages while you surf the Internet.

"I know it's unusual," the bespectacled 41-year-old Briggs Chaney man said. "It's a novel idea, but people want places like this."

People like Debbie Jackson, a federal health policy worker in Bethesda who stopped there during her lunch break.

"I love the idea," Ms. Jackson said. "The coffee makes it more friendly and accessible, and the time [for learning] is here. I think I need to get on the highway before I become road kill."

Cyber cafes have been the rage in Europe -- in Paris, 16 of them opened in less than 10 months -- but only recently hit the United States. The first opened in San Francisco five years ago. Since then, nearly 100 have opened across the country.

Mr. Colella said the demand to access the Internet at OnLine Cafe is so heavy that he will open a branch in Baltimore, across from the convention center on Pratt Street, as early as April. He also wants to set up shop in Annapolis, Columbia and Washington, and he envisions branches in Philadelphia, Honolulu, London and Rio de Janeiro.

More than 200 people walked into his Rockville cafe the week of Jan. 2, the first week it was open. Since then, Mr. Colella estimated that the cafe averages about 50 customers every day.

"People get here at night and don't want to leave," he said, adding that he has never closed by the time posted on the front door. "I'd be closing the door, and people are knocking on the front window asking, 'Can you open up, please?' "

"I had a really good notion that this was going to take off, but this " Mr. Colella's voice trailed off.

The cafe is almost invisible from Rockville Pike, save for a neon sign in the front window. But a closer inspection reveals the modest storefront is just that -- a front.

Inside the 2,000-square-foot cafe, cakes and espresso bought from caterers and retailers are served a couple of feet away from more than half a million dollars' worth of advanced technology.

For $10 an hour, customers can access any Internet site they wish on five computers next to the counter. Twelve more terminals behind a glass screen are for customers who need to write reports, create fliers and compose spreadsheets.

All of the terminals are linked to T1 fiber optics, a telecommunications line that enhances computer access to files and Internet sites. Many terminals can process 28,800 bits of information per second, but the T1 link allows Mr. Colella's computers to process 1.5 million bits of information per second. What would take a regular terminal two minutes to download takes only 31 seconds on his computers, Mr. Colella said.

And he is seated just yards away from the computers to help the computer illiterate.

The cafe was a natural extension of Mr. Colella's home-based computer graphics and imaging firm, where clients would stop and stay all day.

"It got to the point where I was making them lunch and dinner," he said. "What do you always do when you're sitting next to a computer? Don't you have a munchie or a soda near you?"

But more important, Mr. Colella said, he wanted to offer people a chance to use the most advanced technology without having to plunk down thousands of dollars.

"If you have something to do and don't own a computer, this is the next best thing," he said. "You can have a bite to eat, and you can work on the computer."

And at least one singles group is considering renting the cafe to host a sort of cyber-singles party, Mr. Colella said.

Steve Schoen, 52, a stockbroker from North Bethesda, surfed the Net Monday night even though he has a computer at home.

"But everything takes so long," said Mr. Schoen, sipping a cup of coffee. "You spend a lot of time waiting for information to come up. I wanted to see what it was like on a faster communication line."

Jayne Binolis, a 31-year-old commercial airline pilot from Ioanina, Greece, was vacationing in Maryland when she read about the cafe in a local newspaper. Now, she wants to know if Mr. Colella will give her permission to open a similar cafe near Athens.

"They're extremely popular in Europe because people don't have enough money to buy computers," Mrs. Binolis said. "And [Europeans] are very social. They want to get out of the house and they love to talk. I think a group of them would enjoy sitting around a computer, feeding it questions and drinking coffee."

Mr. Colella said any future branches must live up to the motto of his one-stop shop: "You can have your cake, and compute, too."

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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