New cafe offers free coffee, with a catch

Nick Grabbe

A new coffee shop has opened in Amherst, but it’s different from every other coffee shop in town. And that makes some people uncomfortable.

It’s called Shiru Cafe, and it’s occupying the same space on Boltwood Walk that Share and Rao’s did previously. It opened Dec. 3, and is a part of a chain that operates coffee shops in Japan and India.

The first Shiru Cafe in the U.S. opened 10 months ago in Providence, near Brown University, and the one in Amherst is the second. A Shiru Cafe is due to open in New Haven in February, and later next year in Cambridge and Princeton, N.J.

What’s different about Shiru Cafe is that the coffee is free, but only for college and university students, who are required to provide information about themselves. That includes name, age, email address, field of study, student ID number, and professional interests. Faculty members are also welcome, but not the general public.

In Japan and India, Shiru Cafe has sold “sponsorships” to such companies as Microsoft, Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Suzuki. Shiru Cafe says it does not sell the data it collects about students, but companies buy access to the students.

We’re not about collecting data but providing a comfortable space for students to think about their careers,” said Rusty Daniels, manager of the Amherst cafe. “It’s less a cafe than a platform for networking.”

No corporate partnerships in the U.S. have been secured so far, and the parent company has paid the expenses of opening and staffing. Between 600 and 700 people come to the Providence site at the peak of the Brown academic year, Daniels said.

Students or faculty can get one free coffee every two hours, or tea or juice if they prefer. Lattes and espresso are available for $1, and faculty and college employees pay $1 for coffee or other beverages. To encourage people to stay, there’s a $1 fee for to-go coffee, and croissants, cookies, donuts and bagels are sold for between $2 and $4.

Wifi is available. There are five large video screens that could in the future be used for corporate messaging, and in Asia, some sponsors put their logos on the coffee cups. Shiru Cafe is employing about 25 students, all part time.

Shiru’s mission is often misunderstood, said Isabel Strobing, the vice president of client strategy.

We want to empower students and make them feel more comfortable,” she said. “Their lives are stressful and they work hard. This is a beautiful space where it’s easier to talk to people. Recruiters find that the traditional models are not working, and this provides them with a chance to share what they love about a company.”

Hundreds of Japanese students have located jobs or internships through Shiru Cafe, she said.

The data that the company collects from students is no different from what Facebook or Linked In have, and the servers are tightly controlled, Daniels said. “When it comes to privacy, there’s little to be worried about,” he said.

But Alex Kent finds plenty to worry about. He was a regular patron of Share when it operated at the Shiru Cafe site, and he recently wrote on Facebook that the new business “is all about getting the right kind of people in and keeping the wrong people out.”

Kent lives on North Prospect Street and is an organizer of the Amherst Food Co-op. He walked in to Shiru Cafe and made his concerns known to Daniels, who said of the conversation, “Our business model is not something everyone agrees with, and that’s OK.”

In an interview, Kent said he welcomes new businesses, but only ones that are open to all.

This is an incursion into common spaces and an erosion of common spaces in the interest of privatization,” he said. “It’s elitist in the worst way.”

The University of Massachusetts operates a career development center that can provide students with facilities for finding employment, Kent said.

If Shiru stated that it’s a personnel recruiting organization, I would have no problem with that,” he said. “If it was closed to the public after-hours but open to students looking for professional opportunities, I’d be all right with that.”

Instead, Shiru uses free coffee as “bait” to lure students into giving up some of their privacy, Kent said. “If getting a job is what college is all about, you should go to a trade school,” he said.

Kent said he feels angry about Shiru Cafe displacing Share, and plans to agitate against it. He’s wondered whether it’s constitutional to operate a public accommodation that is open to some classes of people but not others

Shiru Cafe is currently open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and will close for 10 days over the Christmas holidays, reopening Jan. 2. It expects to be open until 10 p.m. as of Jan. 28.

Comments 5

  1. Two questions: Are some people denied service, or do they just have to pay more than students? Did the cafe really “displace” Share – that is, force it to move? Definitely an unusual business model.

    1. Post

      I have updated this blog post to make it clear that the products at Shiru Cafe are available only to university and college students and faculty, not the general public. As to Share, my impression is that it moved because its lease was up and the landlords increased the rent, but I’m not positive about that.

  2. So it’s essentially a corporate recruitment office smack dab in the middle of town. Since this was a bit of a gathering place for so many people in town, this is a jarring change. Whatever criticism we have needs to be a principled one, and I can’t think of one right now. We’ll have some of our best and brightest in town sucked into the corporate vortex, with free coffee as the enticement. My sense is Mr. Kent’s attack, using all of the current buzz words, is not a surgical one. It could, I suppose, create some much needed foot traffic of young people in town, which might be for the best. It would be nice if some of our best and brightest stayed in Amherst and became small business owners and employers. Perhaps we should wait and see how this plays out?

  3. In conversations I had with Share Coffee employees prior to their move out of the space currently occupied by Shiru Café, I learned that Share had been paying monthly rent of $8,000 and that Lincoln Real Estate had informed Share that the rent was going up. I was shocked, thinking that $8,000/month is already a lot of money, so I sent an email to Lincoln Real Estate. I said I thought they were being greedy and that it would be better to support a local business that provides much-needed common space downtown. Within an hour or two I received a phone call from an irritated Lincoln representative who asked me, “Do you have a problem?” I said, “Yes, I do have a problem,” and I went on to explain my feelings about their business’s role in the gentrification of Amherst. The Lincoln representative said, “Well, did you know that we haven’t raised the rent in six years?!” Whatever the rationale, it would appear that Lincoln’s basic business model is “whatever the market will bear.” My understanding is that Share Coffee was forced out because the rent was simply going to be too high.

    Are people being denied service? Most definitely. Shiru is only interested in serving current college students and faculty members who are gullible enough to share their personal information with the company in exchange for a beverage. Without a valid student or faculty ID number and a willingness to provide personal information, that latte is going to someone else. That’s denial of service.

    If this business clearly announced itself as a networking or corporate recruitment service, I would not care if they were ladling out pots of caffeine for free. Instead, Shiru poses as an innocent “café” (which to me at least suggests a “coffee shop”) or a “store” (see their website, complete with mangled English). The website describes Shiru as a “third campus” (what happened to the first two?), and its manager, Rusty Daniels told me that Shiru is just providing a relaxing space where students can learn about great opportunities to get great jobs which, after all, “is why they’re going to college in the first place.” I begged to differ, because I thought people went to college to get an education. One hopes that a college education would equip a person to discern the difference between truth and bunkum.

    Finally, which companies are sponsoring Shiru Café? In Japanese, “Shiru” (知る) means “to know.” I’d like to know the names of these companies and the size of their financial support.

  4. I think we can agree that it is sad that this is the kind of business that is getting established in the heart of our downtown. But as our much beloved Amherst College political science professor George Kateb reminded students like me way back in the mid-70s, part of the price of living in a free society is being a disgusted witness to the distasteful choices of others in deciding what to do with their private property rights. I am hopeful that current Amherst College students can see through what looks like exploitation aimed at them. If we can see through it, they can see through it.

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