CAFE CULTURE: THE CASE OF THE SPANISH CAFE

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David Martos at De Mercado. The freelance journalist, who often works in cafes because he  doesn’t want
to work in the same environment where he eats and sleeps, asserts that “some cafes consider
that  if you work at a table, you are occupying a table that they can’t
use for other
customers.  But more cafes are conscious of a new style of
working and are now more friendly to it.”

By Ysabelle Kempe
Photos: Y. Kempe

When I walked in the door of HanSo Cafe in Malasaña, I felt transported back to the United States. The coffee shop mirrored the ones I was used to: A stocked specialty drink menu, background music directly uploaded from the “chill vibes” playlist of a hipster, and, of course, free WiFi. 

HanSo glass façade.

In the States, I take places like HanSo for granted. But here in Spain, I quickly noticed that the ability to work in a cafe isn’t always a given. Sometimes I wander into a cafe to do work only to realize they are serving wine at 2 p.m. and don’t have a large enough surface to perch my computer on.

It also seems that in Spain WiFi is a much hotter commodity, with multiple cafes I’ve been to only providing the service for a number of minutes before they cut it off. Even HanSo, which seems built to work in, had signs instructing customers not to use their laptops at certain tables on the weekends, when the cafe is presumably busiest. 

Announcement of restricted laptop use at HanSo.

I began to wonder if I was a cultural dunce. Is it rude to use cafes as my personal office like I do in the United States? Is cafe culture different in Spain? Feeling like a caffeinated Nancy Drew, I set out to discover the truth by asking cafe customers across Madrid.

The first discovery I made was that the number of cafes with WiFi is steadily increasing, at least according to a handful of the Spaniards I spoke with. 

“Before, cafes didn’t have Wifi, but all around Madrid more and more do now,” said David Martos, a Madrid-based freelance journalist I encountered on his laptop in the restaurant De Mercado. “I think that some cafes consider that if you work at a table, you are occupying a table that they can’t use for other customers. But more cafes are conscious of a new style of working and are more friendly to it.”

Salvador Casado, a doctor who lives in a “pueblo” outside of Madrid, assured me that it is much more typical for people to work in cafes in larger cities like Madrid. In smaller cities, he said, it is more common for individuals to work in public spaces, such as libraries.

Aida Blanco: She says there is a difference between older cafes meant for eating and European coffee houses meant for working.

While the insight given to me by Martos and Casado was thought-provoking, it didn’t answer my question of whether it is socially acceptable to work in Spanish cafes. It wasn’t until I sat down in cafe Faborit with Aida Blanco, who hails from Spain but is currently pursuing her singing career in Dubai, that I started to unravel the root of the issue. 

“It depends on the cafe in Spain. There are many cafeterias, old ones, here that don’t have WiFi,” Blanco told me, after pausing to consider the question. “But there are also more European cafes that are more like coffee shops for working. It’s true that Spain doesn’t have as many of those as parts of Europe like Berlin and London.”

Free-WiFi sign at Rodilla, the ubiquitous Spanish cafe.

I remember nodding vigorously as she explained the concept to me. Here in Spain, a cafe can be distinct from a coffee shop. The former may be for eating, while the latter is typically work-friendly. Depending on the environment, it may or may not be okay to pull out a computer and get surfing. 

Later in the afternoon, I was back in HanSo where this whole fiasco began. There, I ran into Sydney Malkin, a Connecticut native studying abroad in Madrid, who validated Blanco’s hypothesis.

“In the United States, any cafe you can walk into and sit down and open your laptop and do work. There’s no question,” Malkin said, leaning over her neatly handwritten notes that were strewn about the cafe table. “But here, people come to cafes also to just get coffee, catch up, or just sit by themselves to enjoy coffee or a meal.”

“Spanish people come to cafes to get coffee, catch up, or just sit and enjoy coffee or a meal,” says Sydney Malkin. Whereas  American cafes are for working. She reckons it’s because “the United States is an individualistic culture. It’s less about enjoying your time with people.”

Malkin’s strategy has been to walk into a cafe and feel it out. She tells me it is usually clear whether a cafe is work friendly, except on the weekends, when some cafes prohibit camping out at tables with laptops. 

I left my conversation with Malkin satisfied I had cracked the case of the Spanish cafe. There’s only one remaining question, which I’ll have to solve upon returning to the United States: Why is it such a given that all American cafes are work friendly? Malkin has one guess.

“The United States is a more individualistic culture,” she said. “It’s less about enjoying your time with other people.”