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.