Don't spill espresso on the keyboard Coffeehouse: The Strand Cybercafe, which opens tomorrow, lets you feed your Internet compulsion with eight terminals, plus caffeine.

March 04, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

They hope their vegetable lasagna and whole-leaf teas will coax Internet junkies out of isolation and into a place where the real and the virtual mingle.

At the Strand, a new "cybercafe" in downtown Baltimore opening tomorrow, customers can order grilled sandwiches, soup, bean dip and a trip around the World Wide Web for $8 an hour.

Owner Joshua Darrin, who knows computers, and manager Mark Asch, who knows coffee, are betting on an emerging idea that links two of the late '90s hottest trends -- coffeehouses and the Internet.

The duo has transformed the first floor of the IBM building at Calvert and Lombard streets -- the former site of Encore Books -- into a cafe with counter-service coffee drinks and made-to-order food, cafe tables, sofas, a library and eight computers with direct Internet access atop a wall-length counter top.

Darrin, 26, a former audio engineer and digital technician, sees the Internet as a powerful communication tool, but one with drawbacks. It's unwieldy, inaccessible to those who can't afford it and too often used in isolation, he says.

"You're communicating with people around the world, but you're physically isolated," he said.

But cybercafes can begin to change all that.

"Cafes of years past were places where people gathered and exchanged information," Darrin said. "We've lost a lot of that element, where you can gather and where people learn from each other. We're using computers to bring that aspect back to the cafe."

From Manhattan to Santa Monica, in cities and the suburbs, the cybercafe is fast becoming the information superhighway's latest pit stop, offering a relaxed atmosphere in which to explore cutting-edge technology without large investments of time or money.

The number of cafes grew from 50 at the end of 1995 to several hundred by the middle of last year, according to the National Association for Internet Cafes. New ones are opening each month, with names such as Cyber Cafe, Cafe Connect and Cafe Cyberway.

Late last year, Apple Computer Inc. licensed its name and products for an international chain of "cyber-based theme restaurants," with the first 15,000-square-foot Apple Cafe to open later this year in Los Angeles. Also last year, Intel Corp. formed an alliance with Starbucks Corp. to open a cybercafe chain.

The Strand won't be the first of its kind in Baltimore, though it will likely be the largest, filling 3,000 square feet and offering access 00TC through both terminals and laptop computers. Cross-trained employees will be able to brew cappuccino as well as assist in finding the most appropriate search engine on the Web.

Billing itself as Baltimore's first cybercafe, Cafe Pangea opened six months ago in a restored Victorian home on Falls Road in Hampden.

"Everyone's into the Internet," said owner Buddy Wolfe, who copied the idea from San Francisco cafes. "It's interesting and fun."

For Wolfe, the cafe seemed a natural extension next door to his recycled art and jewelry store, La Terra. He's an electrical engineer and both he and his wife are artists. They gave the cafe an art-museum feel, from the faux-painted walls to the local artwork and metal sculptures.

Even the four computer terminals seem more showpieces than information conduits, sitting atop intricately carved wood mantels. A recent weekday found two of four terminals temporarily out of commission, one a victim of coffee spills, the other of children's pounding.

At first, Internet access might have drawn some patrons, Wolfe said. But now, they come mainly for the food, Italian sandwiches, pastries, coffee drinks, wine and specialties, such as shrimp Creole.

"Our mainstay is our food and wine, that's our main business," Wolfe said. Internet "is more of a sideshow. The usage doesn't sustain the cost."

The cuisine has also been the main draw at Funk's Democratic Coffee Spot in Fells Point, where a single computer sits in an-out-of-the way alcove, temporarily missing a monitor.

Owner Janet Pheiffer agreed to have a computer consultant install a terminal after some regulars asked for Internet access. The consultant uses the cafe's space and charges an hourly $6 for the service.

But customers surf the net only sporadically, said Pheiffer, who says she would hardly consider her vegetarian and vegan (dishes made without butter or eggs) diner a cybercafe.

"I thought it would be a way to increase business or give some interest, but it wasn't any big deal," she said. "The technology of the Internet is so rapidly advancing that people who are into it have to have [a provider] focused on the most up-to-date service."

Those who have logged on have sought specific information, Pheiffer said. If she keeps the computer, it will be relegated to the third floor, along with the smokers, in the smoking lounge.

Several other city coffeehouses, including the Daily Grind in Fells Point, have tried offering Internet access for brief periods before dropping it.

But at the Strand, Darrin and Asch are betting Internet access will be more than just a novelty.

"Even if the entire population gets connected, there's something to be said for personal contact and being someplace where there are other people," Darrin said.

With the help of his father, Darrin had spent months researching the idea, drawing up a business plan and getting financing from the Small Business Administration. When his partner, a producer at his former recording studio, dropped out, Darrin decided to hire a food and beverage specialist.

A classified ad brought him Asch, former manager of a Bethesda coffee shop. The two had similar philosophies about managing a business, wanting it both community-oriented and environmentally conscious.

"We're trying to create an atmosphere that's a nice, comfortable social atmosphere, downplaying the technical aspect," Asch said.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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