Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hash Browns and Mutual Funds

It was a Sunday morning, and I was in San Antonio, Texas. Our schedule had us working late that evening, but the offset was that I didn't have to be in until noon. Especially since my body clock was still on east coast time, I was up early with not a whole lot to do. I went for a long run through some nice old neighborhoods, then got back to my hotel room and caught up on a little paperwork. But by 8AM I was getting hungry. I generally hate ordering room service, so packed up my stuff and headed out to try and find a place where I could get a bite, read the paper and do a little more work on my laptop.

As I exited the hotel, I saw a Denny's right across the street. Not that I'm a big fan of the restaurant chain, but certainly on that particular day and time it seemed like a reasonable destination. As I got closer, I scanned the banners flying in the entrance. Indeed, it had some nice breakfast specials ("Southwestern Sizzlin' Skillet") and a bottomless cup of coffee ("Just $1.99!"). But the kicker was something I didn't expect to find, and made it not just an acceptable place to hang out, but the perfect place: it had free WiFi.

More and more establishments are offering free access to the internet as a way to lure and keep customers. Barnes and Noble, Panera Bread and Borders Books are just some of the major chains that have opened wide their bandwidth to anyone who walks in the door. In fact, free access to the internet appears to be the "in" gift to give this year. Google will be providing it at no charge on all Virgin America flights, as well as offering free WiFi in 47 airports through January 15, 2010. Not to be outdone, Yahoo says it will provide free WiFi for an entire year in Times Square in New York City. Even religious pilgrims were able to get in on the fun: Bayanat Al-Oula launched free WiFi service in all holy sites during this year's Hajj.

Lest you think this is just for the geeky among us, think again, or better yet, just look around you. The number of people using laptops, netbooks and WiFi enabled smart phones has exploded. AT&T, the U.S. WiFi leader with nearly 20,000 domestic hotspots, said that in the first quarter of 2009 the number of connections totaled 10.5 million, more than triple the 3.4 million connections in the same period of 2008.

But back to Denny's. When I walked in, I asked the hostess for a quiet spot in the back where I could sit for a while. After I had ordered breakfast and coffee, I pulled out my laptop and started surfing. I read the news, checked the weather and started to do a little prep work for the day. When breakfast came I split my time between some home fries and the stock market, and did a little browsing of the latest releases on iTunes to boot. A refill of coffee or two later I finally got around to doing some research and writing.

I confess I felt a little bad about taking up space that might otherwise have been flipped to another paying customer. Sure, I ordered an extra order of toast to nibble on as I sat there. But I wondered how the waitress felt. When Marta came by to freshen up my cup yet again, I asked her about it. She was unconcerned: she told me that she often had people sit there for 2 hours or more. Some held meetings, and even showed PowerPoint presentations. "Good food, nice people... I don't mind." She left me an extra creamer, and continued on her rounds.

It's certainly a crowd pleasing gimmick, and likely brings in some like myself that wouldn't otherwise choose the restaurant for a business breakfast or lunch. So go ahead and invite that new client to 21, and order the hand-cut Irish oatmeal. As for me, I'll stick with the low end, offer my prospect the Chocolate Chip Pancakes and also be able to show him my latest stuff on YouTube. And even when I leave Marta an extra five bucks on my $15 tab for taking up her space, I'll still be way ahead.


Marc Wollin has made Panera Bread his preferred road office. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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