The Homeless Office

While most patrons of the Temescal Cafe read newspapers or sip lattes, Todd Spitzer runs a church from the table by the window

Y ou could walk by the Temescal Cafe a dozen times and never notice it. The neighborhood coffeehouse at 50th and Telegraph is low-profile to the point of invisible, its one small sign mounted high above normal pedestrian sightlines. Even if you knew where to look, there’s no guarantee you’d get in. The cafe is blessed and cursed with heavy, ten-foot-tall sliding glass doors. The doors make up the Temescal’s entire west wall, infusing the space with the sun-dappled ambience of a sidewalk cafe.

The portals are beautiful, but require a certain amount of dexterity to breach. Newcomers usually try to shove the big doors inward on nonexistent hinges. Cafe regulars sitting near the entry have evolved a pantomime for just this situation. It’s an ungainly dance — one that looks like someone playing a particularly recalcitrant accordion. After a few moments, though, the dance works its instructive magic, the doors slide apart, and an embarrassed newcomer has taken his or her first step toward becoming a Temescal veteran.

The trial-by-door is part of the cafe’s welcoming charm. Once you’re in, you’re in. And as East Bay cafes go, there are few better places to be “in” than the Temescal Cafe. The space is large and tables plentiful. Light pools in the clay-colored floors, and Dinah Washington drifts softly from the speakers. Patrons — white and black, Asian and Latino, office types and blue-collar workers — lounge at the bar, chat at one of the large tables near the door, or leaf through newspapers from a comfortable wing chair in the back of the cafe.

This unhurried, neighborhood vibe makes the Temescal Cafe an unlikely home to a booming business subculture. The solid glass entryway has become the door of opportunity for a group of self-employed East Bay residents who come here every day to set up shop. The signs of their existence are mostly electronic — laptops clustered on tables by the cafe’s outlets, noise-cutting headphones with their coiled black cords, Palm Pilots resting next to half-eaten bagels, cell phones with the ringers set on low.

These clues reveal the presence of office squatters, a dedicated group of workers who rent their workplaces one latte at a time. They are a disparate lot, composed of everyone from MBA-wielding entrepreneurial types, plotting their empires over cranberry scones, to recently downsized 9-to-5’ers, hustling contract work to cover the next mortgage payment.

For this small group, the Temescal Cafe is both cubicle and cafeteria, break room and boardroom. Workers may get their mail at home, but they do almost everything else in the cafe — from returning phone calls to launching Web sites. Like the early adopters of cell phones, office squatters are raising questions about etiquette and technology faster than culture can answer them. Two things are clear, however. Their numbers are on the rise, and cafe culture will never be the same.

With his shaved head, blond goatee, and pierced ear tragus, Todd Spitzer, 35, looks more like an angsty artist than a young professional. But his Macintosh G3 laptop, Palm Pilot, and cell phone — not to mention the sheer number of hours he logs in the cafe — give him away. Office squatters are as likely to use their laptops to design miniature golf courses as they are to perform the more predictable chores of novel writing or proofreading. No one offers better evidence of this diversity than Spitzer: From his table at the Temescal Cafe, he is running a church.

The church he runs, Regeneration, is located three blocks up the street at iMusicast, a space normally rented out for promotional Internet Webcasts of rock bands. Regeneration started in 1999 as Bible study for people who don’t like church. As the group has grown, Spitzer and his nonconformist congregation have made short shrift of the more staid rituals of institutional Christianity. Quiet hymns have been trashed in favor of rock or electronic performances. Spitzer’s preaching (he calls it “teaching” to get away from preaching’s sanctimonious connotations) is informal and exploratory. And instead of watered-down juice and stale coffee, Spitzer makes sure everyone is adequately wired on Peet’s rocket fuel before the ceremonies commence.

Spitzer’s unconventional church has been a hit — Regeneration started with eight people and has grown to 175 members. And what once required a few hours of preparation has become a full-time job for Spitzer. His laptop, loaded with bookkeeping software, an encyclopedia of biblical places and figures, and a Web-design program, allows him to run the church from his Temescal neighborhood home. But home, he’s found, isn’t such an easy place to get things done.

“I get too ADD at home,” Spitzer explains, a boyish grin spreading across his face. “I’ll be sitting there working, and I’ll see something sitting on a table and I’ll start getting involved with that. I’d get distracted. But here, even though there’s more going on, it’s easier to tune out and focus on what I’m doing.”

It’s an oft-heard refrain from office squatters, and a lesson Spitzer first learned two years ago while helping his wife launch a home-based PR company. Cooped up at home, the two experimented with doing some of their work at the nearby Temescal Cafe. The tumult of the cafe kept them energized enough to stay focused on the work at hand. The arsenal of stimulants available didn’t hurt either. And office squatting enhances more than just productivity, as Spitzer has discovered running Regeneration. For small East Bay businesses shell-shocked by the current state of rents, an informal, bagel-by-bagel lease also is a tremendous boon to the company’s bottom line.

“We’re totally funded by donations,” Spitzer says of his church. “I think it’s important to spend that money responsibly. Why spend $1,500 a month on office space when that’s money we could use for the community?”

Having such a public office fits in well with Regeneration’s goal of being out among the people they’re trying to serve. For the gregarious Spitzer, it’s also a chance to introduce the Regeneration concept to potential church members.

“If I sit home, it’s just me and my books,” he says. “I’m not paying attention to reality. Out here you get the pulse of the community. You see where people are at — how they think and how they feel. You get really good conversations.”

As Spitzer talks, his words are drowned out by the spitting wheeze of the espresso machine and the sound of the cafe doors opening and closing. From two tables down, a laptop boots up with an electronic burble. After a year of working in the cafe, Spitzer hears it all, but registers none of it.

From that laptop, two tables down, office squatter Jeremy Frankel is just starting his workday.

Frankel hasn’t worked a 9-to-5 office job in the thirteen years he’s lived in the United States. An American citizen born and raised in Britain, he is too independent to work well within the confines of an office. A mapmaker by training, Frankel has spent many of his 48 years developing an eye for detail and a passion for geographic minutiae. Canals are his greatest love — he’s spent a vast amount of time on waterways throughout Britain and upstate New York, floating at a snail’s pace, working on mapping, restoration, and educational projects for nonprofits and a local boat touring company.

All the time spent on the water has permanently altered his view of work. “Traveling on a boat two or three miles an hour, you really get a feel for the way life is,” he says. “You notice things that you don’t at 60 miles per hour. A lot of people have lost that ability to notice things that way. To slow down. I’m very fortunate that I have that benefit. And I hold on to that dearly. I want the time — I want the space — to move at my own pace.”

Frankel bikes to the Temescal Cafe from his North Oakland home. He comes here three times a week, buying a cup of the potent Fog Lifter coffee in the morning (“helps my one brain cell function,” he jokes), and a pot of jasmine tea in the afternoon. Frankel is on hiatus from the canal work now: These days he makes his living as a detective of sorts, doing contract genealogical research projects for families and individuals.

He spends part of each week following a paper trail of birth certificates, ship manifests, army induction records, and naturalization documents. Most of the rest of his workweek is spent in the cafe, trying to make sense of the data he’s collected. He compares the work to assembling a borderless jigsaw puzzle. It’s a job that demands a fair amount of guesswork and imagination. For Frankel, the Temescal Cafe is the ideal setting to piece together the clues he collects.

“I find that a lot of my creativity starts in a cafe,” Frankel says. “That will give me the ideas to go to libraries and pursue those thoughts and come back with more ideas. It’s a perfect circle.” Of course, Frankel could just as easily step out into a Starbucks. But, like many of the workers who choose to squat at the Temescal Cafe, he is motivated by a mix of local pride and politics. “It’s important for me to spend my money locally,” he says. “I’ve been coming here almost since they opened. I was here for their first anniversary party. They’re working their butts off here, and I support their efforts.”

Frankel also appreciates the environment they have created for him. Being unplugged from the manic pace of normal business life is one of the reasons he’s able to get so much work done in the coffee shop. Office squatters tend to be tech-savvy people and, like Spitzer, Frankel has a laptop with an extended-life battery that puts him above the competition for the Temescal Cafe’s scarce electrical outlets. But unlike Spitzer, though, Frankel doesn’t bring a phone to his office.

“It’s buying me an hour or two of time,” he says over his pint of coffee. “I can stop the world, step out, and have my time back.”

Fifteen feet away from Frankel, Carol Siegal is talking on her cell phone. She’s the only person in the cafe talking on a phone, and she feels a little self-conscious about it. “I talk more loudly maybe than most people anyway,” she says, an embarrassed smile on her face. “And a lot of times when I get in a professional situation on the phone, I tend to ramp it up.”

But on this day, Siegal’s reluctance to bother other cafe patrons takes a backseat to the day’s to-do list. She has a lot of calls to get through, and doesn’t have time to move her work outside to a less-obtrusive calling spot. It’s a familiar conundrum for Siegal: The energetic, 42-year-old portfolio manager has been running her professional life from home and cafes since 1995.

Like Frankel, she first came to the Temescal Cafe because it was convenient. But she comes back because it’s the sort of independent business she likes to support. “It’s more the kind of place for neighborhood activism,” she says. “And I like the fact that it feels very urban, very diverse.”

Siegal shows up at the Temescal Cafe two or three days a week. She’s usually had a hectic morning; her three-year-old daughter is supposed to be at preschool by 9 a.m. But getting a three-year-old dressed, fed, and out the door is a near-Sisyphean endeavor. Siegal and her daughter usually make it to school by 9:30, and Siegal is working in her cafe office by 10.

Personally, Siegal is approaching a crossroads. Over the past few years, she has pared back her investment-management business to spend more time with her daughter. It’s been deeply satisfying, but Siegal has missed the rush of building a business. In her “downtime” these days, she chairs the planning committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater East Bay, cochairs its grants committee, and takes piano lessons. With her daughter soon to enter the public school system, Siegal would like to leave time in her busy schedule to volunteer in her classroom. But she’s also eager to jump-start new business projects.

Regardless of how she resolves her scheduling dilemma, a cafe office will likely figure into her plans. Like Spitzer, Siegal finds working at home a near-impossibility. Bustling coffee shops always have been the place where she keeps up with financial markets, has meetings, and writes up reports for her clients.

Mothers, she says, face a particularly difficult time when attempting to set up a functional home office because they are more likely to get sucked into time-consuming chores. “I can end up spending an hour at home paying bills, entering bills, moving laundry,” she says. “And all those things are important, but they grow to fill the time. And then that leaves how much for the work?”

Not a coffee drinker, Siegal appreciates the kick from the strong pots of black tea doled out at the cafe. But for her and other squatters, the more consistent high is the social one. Her work for the Jewish Federation has her evaluating a myriad of grant proposals. As with her money-management responsibilities, the job involves a lot of solitary time spent reading. Going through the proposals in the cafe, she finds, leaves her feeling less isolated.

“I like being around people,” she says. “Even if I’m not talking to them.”

Siegal isn’t really looking to build friendships in the cafe. It’s an important time-management decision all office squatters have to make after they’ve spent a fair amount of time working somewhere. Do you interact? Or do you try to stay anonymous behind the laptop so you can get more done?

For Siegal, the most important thing is knowing she can come to the cafe and work without interruptions.

“One of the biggest virtues for me is not to run into people I know here,” she says. “You talk about distractions — that would be the biggest distraction. Because I don’t have the daily interaction of going to the office, that can be a huge distraction if I go somewhere and I see someone I know.”

If things had gone according to business plans, Siegal, Spitzer, and Frankel all would be spending their days elsewhere. When Rick Raffanti, Jack Toner, and a silent partner bought the New Era furniture store back in August ’93, they thought they were opening a restaurant.

Raffanti and Toner are as much a comedy duo as they are business partners. They joke constantly, finish each other’s sentences, and laugh deeply and easily, especially when the subject is their business acumen. Back in 1993, neither Raffanti nor Toner had any experience in running a restaurant. Toner had just left a corporate job with a post-merger severance package (“They gave me a tin parachute,” he says). Raffanti had worked as an electrical engineer for UC Berkeley. The two had kicked around opening a restaurant for a few years. It seemed like a fun thing to do.

Soon after buying the old furniture store, however, the duo discovered they were in far over their heads. The building had plenty of space for a kitchen and dishwashing area, but safety codes required stoves, and ovens have exhaust fans to carry the smoke outside. That meant boring through the ceiling and running a chimney through the property above the cafe. It was possible, but incredibly costly.

Meanwhile, the cost of even the minimum amount of equipment required of a functioning restaurant was mounting. Not to mention the fees from their $100-an-hour restaurant-design consultant. With the space half-finished, Raffanti and Toner found themselves at a financial impasse. “We ran out of money and said ‘What the hell are we going to do?'” Raffanti explains.

“I was pretty much in despair at that point, thinking all of it was going down the tubes,” Toner agrees. “Then Rick came up with the idea of just opening a cafe. Just as an interim step.”

They scaled back their plans. Raffanti cut costs by building the banquettes, tabletops, and bar himself. One week before opening, still in a frenzy of sawdust, they were beset with a combination of excitement and stomach-clenching jitters. They had prepared themselves for low profit margins. They already had come to terms with the fact that their location — far removed from any office parks or high-traffic shopping areas — would make it hard to build a repeat clientele. But as the opening day loomed ever closer, they started thinking that opening a cafe on an underdeveloped strip of Telegraph Avenue just might be their Waterloo.

“Just before we opened, I got paranoid, thinking ‘I’m going to get murdered!'” Toner says, throwing up his arms and laughing. Hearing this, Raffanti cracks up, shaking his head. “I had that same paranoia,” he says.

Nevertheless, on January 18, 1998 they slid open the heavy glass doors for business. By the end of the first week, they already had regulars.

Four years later, the cafe has gone from a basic menu of coffee and pastries to serving a range of hot breakfasts and lunches. Their clientele has grown over the years partly because of the low prices, good food, and ambience, but also because customers feel valued there. Unlike other cafes that try to turn over tables in a hurry, Raffanti and Toner make sure people know they are welcome to stay as long as they like. “People do sit all day with a cup of coffee or a pot of tea,” says Raffanti. “It’s nice.”

As for the coterie of office squatters that this low-key environment attracts, Raffanti and Toner see it as just another part of any healthy cafe ecosystem.

“The more variety the better,” Toner says. “I’m very happy we have some people coming in in suits. Some people obviously are blue-collar workers. And some people are bohemians.”

Raffanti nods. “To me, that’s very important — that it’s not totally yuppified,” he says. “We try to keep our prices low. Old people come in, young people come in.”

The duo briefly considered adding Internet access to the cafe, but decided it would be too much work. Adding extra electrical outlets so more people can plug in laptops also has been discussed, but discarded. Some of it has to do with the limited electrical wiring in the space. But the other part is philosophical.

“I don’t know if I want to have it filled with people with laptops,” Toner says. “I like the variety that there’s enough outlets that a few people can come and have laptops.”

Raffanti agrees. “People sitting there with their laptops are pretty isolated. What we like is the convivial atmosphere where people actually meet their neighbors that they didn’t know before.”

Raffanti and Toner haven’t noticed much of an increase in the numbers of squatters over the years, but their staff has. Employee Erica Dudley — at the cafe since March 2000 — sees the squatters as a mellow lot, wont to show up early and stay all day, inconspicuously tucked into the cafe’s corners.

“When I started, there weren’t that many,” Dudley recalls. “There were a few students coming in to do it. … Since 2000, it’s started to grow. There used to be maybe one, and now there are ten.”

Alameda County employment statistics bear her out. Even as the county’s economy has worsened over the past year, the number of people launching small businesses has increased. Wilpert Lee, deputy director of the East Bay Small Business Development office, spends his day helping Alameda County residents set up fledgling businesses. Lately his office has been slammed with calls from laid-off 9-to-5’ers trying to establish other avenues of income. “We’ve had an enormous amount of people calling within the last two, three weeks,” he says. “We’ve been getting 10, 12, 15, sometimes 20 calls a day, and the last few days about 75 percent of them are people wanting to start businesses.”

This trend is replicating itself on a national level as well. The 1990 US Census showed a 56.2 percent spike in the number of home-based workers, ending a 20-year decline. And as the data for 2000 comes available, the Census Bureau expects the number of workers in unconventional workspaces to grow again. “Given the advancements in personal computers and Internet technology since these data were collected in the 1990 census,” the bureau writes in a Census Brief, “we expect even more significant increases in the proportion working at home by Census 2000.”

The growing ability of people to carry their office with them in a laptop bag has meant a boom in business for the cafes that cater to them. Coffee shops that offer high-speed Internet access and other business services are springing up from Illinois to India. These cafes often don’t provide much in the way of ambience or conviviality, but they do offer fax and e-mail and instant connection to the rest of the business world. And, of course, electrical outlets — a whole lot of electrical outlets.

A few months ago, Frankel had a frightening vision of the future. It was on a trip to the Espresso Roma cafe on College and Ashby. “I counted 18 laptops,” he says. “I thought ‘Wow, we’ve gotten to this.'”

Most of the people Frankel saw in Espresso Roma were UC Berkeley students. But still, the sight of all those people in a public place silently staring into glowing screens was an unnerving glimpse into what could be the next wave of technophilic cafe culture. “It was spooky,” he says.

Siegal doesn’t believe the Temescal Cafe ever would allow a takeover by computer-wielding legions of workers. “It’s hard to imagine it would become one of those work-drone kind of places,” she says. But as more and more workers pull up roots and strike out with their laptops to find a welcoming port, the likelihood increases that even the low-key Temescal Cafe will change. It’s ironic: Office squatters work best in places where they can tap into the whirring energy of a social space. But with each new office squatter added to the pool, the cafe becomes more like the bland cubicle-and-desk chair offices they’ve worked hard to avoid.

The sense of being a guest in a delicate, changing environment has led to a growing sense of etiquette among office squatters. Spitzer tries to keep the cafe’s tech level low by not placing his cell phone, Palm Pilot, and laptop on the table at the same time. He keeps the ringer on his phone turned down or off, and monitors the conversational level when he holds meetings there. Siegal does the same. Frankel, like most squatters, is conscientious about supporting the cafe financially, making a point of getting up and buying a second drink and eating there on weekends.

Unbeknownst to the squatters, however, the ambience that makes the Temescal Cafe a pleasant place to run a business makes it a somewhat marginal business in its own right.

Toner and Raffanti’s experiment in cafe ownership has been a victory from a community standpoint. As a moneymaker, though, it’s not panning out. Three-plus years after opening, Raffanti and Toner aren’t losing money anymore. But they’re not making money either. And the years of waking up every morning to prepare food, restock the inventory, fix broken equipment, and make sure the staff and customers are happy have taken a toll on their enthusiasm.

Asked what he sees himself doing in five years, Raffanti laughs at first. Then he just looks exhausted.

“I’m glad we did it,” he says, looking around the cafe. “I like it. It’s a success. It’s a success in sort of a community sense. People are happy to come here.”

Then he pauses. “But I don’t ever see that I could make enough money to justify doing it for that long.”

The alternative — selling the business to someone else — is a hard prospect for both owners to stomach. No one would run it the way they do. A new owner would likely carve up the space more efficiently, adding more tables and seating. A new owner also might pare back the menu, use the staff more efficiently, and cut down on employees’ hours. And, finally, a savvy new owner might also offer more business niceties to woo the laptop legion that so unnerved Frankel on his recent trip to Espresso Roma.

Sure, turning the place into a coffee-fortified Kinko’s might ruin the low-key vibe that has attracted so many of the cafe’s current crop of office squatters. But Frankel, Siegal, and Spitzer would be replaced in time by others more willing to trade a funky, creative atmosphere for a few more outlets along the wall. It just makes good business sense.

It’s not something Raffanti or Toner want to think about. But they can face only so many more years of marginal returns before conceding that it might be time to try something new.

For the time being, though, things look okay. It’s 7 p.m., the cafe is closed, and Raffanti and Toner are relaxing in the wing chairs with a beer. The tables Raffanti built four years ago have been wiped clean. The floor is swept, the waffle iron scoured, and the glowing cooler stocked with soda and beer. In a couple minutes, Raffanti and Toner will lock the big glass doors and head home. Knowing that everything is as it should be. Ready for tomorrow’s businesses.

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