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Work is fun, fun is work, and restaurants are coworking spaces: the craze, explained

Not even high-end restaurants can escape the gig economy’s clutches.

Remote workers at Spacious’s coworking space at Crave Fishbar in New York City.
Remote workers at Spacious’s coworking space at Crave Fishbar in New York City.

If you walk past Crave Fishbar on a weekday afternoon, you might make the mistake of thinking it’s open for lunch. The restaurant, located on New York City’s Upper West Side, certainly looks busy enough. On a recent Thursday visit, I counted a few dozen people sitting in the restaurant’s booths or at the bar. Most of them were hunched over their laptops. A few were quietly taking phone calls. Curiously, no one was talking, no one was eating, and no one was there for lunch.

Crave has gotten into the coworking business. In April, the restaurant partnered with a startup called Spacious to transform its dining room into a weekday workspace. After all, in an age where everyone seems to have a side hustle, why shouldn’t a restaurant?

Founded in 2016, Spacious bills itself as a cheaper, more flexible alternative to traditional coworking spaces like WeWork. For $129 a month — or $99 per month with a year-long membership — members have access to 15 locations in New York City. Most Spacious locations are dinner-only restaurants that would otherwise sit empty during lunch hours. All of them are outfitted with power strips, additional routers to ensure fast WiFi, and a bottomless coffee and tea bar.

Spacious’s model seems to be successful so far. The company expanded to San Francisco last fall and closed a $9.1 million funding round in May. It’s also not entirely unique. Similar startups exist in Austin, Philadelphia, and New York City.

Preston Pesek, Spacious’s co-founder and CEO, described its appeal as twofold. For freelancers and other remote workers who don’t want to pay for a WeWork membership, Spacious is a more appealing option than working from home or from a crowded coffee shop. For restaurant owners who don’t have the bandwidth or desire to open up for lunch, it’s an easy way to monetize unused space.

“People still go to restaurants, but the market for a high-end luxury lunch is less prevalent than it used to be,” said Pesek, who previously worked in hospitality and commercial real estate. “The power lunch is dead.”

The gig economy, however, is very much alive.

Crave opens its doors to Spacious members at 8:30 am sharp, Monday through Friday. The restaurant gets a cut of their monthly dues, though the exact amount varies depending on how many people choose that particular location over others.

Brian Owens, the restaurant’s owner, said the Spacious partnership has been a welcome source of revenue in an industry where profit margins are tight. Crave has another location, in Midtown East, which is open for lunch because it’s near offices and other businesses. But the Upper West Side, Owens said, is a dead zone on weekday afternoons.

“The Upper West Side is kind of like the suburbs of New York City,” Owens told me. “It’s just not worth it for us to open up for lunch. Brunch and dinner, absolutely, but it’s just not worth it during the week. It’s a waste of space, and we’re paying a big rent.”

Spacious members working at Crave Fishbar in New York City’s Upper West Side.
Spacious members working at Crave Fishbar in New York City’s Upper West Side.

Owens said that 60 to 70 Spacious members show up to the location over the course of a typical workday. When I worked out of the restaurant on a Thursday afternoon, there were about two or three dozen Spacious members working there at any given moment, though people filtered in and out throughout the day. The restaurant’s bar had been turned into a coffee and tea station; its back dining room had become a designated “quiet zone” equipped with white noise machines to drown out any sound that filtered in from the front.

It was admittedly very nice. It was also weird.

I opted for a seat in the “quiet zone,” where I had an entire booth to myself. I didn’t speak to a single person aloud all day aside from the Spacious host — a company employee whose job it is to greet members and make sure the space stays tidy — and the checkout guy at a Luke’s Lobster. (I ate my lobster roll, which I did not purchase at Crave, back in my quiet booth. A few Spacious locations serve lunch to members, but most don’t.)

At 3:45 pm, I got a text asking all members to head to the front of the restaurant so Spacious’s hosts could start preparing the back for dinner service; oyster happy hour would start precisely at 5 pm, and I was welcome to stay as a paying customer.

An hour later, I got another text informing me that Crave-the-coworking-space was closing so Crave-the-restaurant could open, but I wasn’t done working. A woman sitting next to me noticed that I was frantically looking up nearby coffee shops with WiFi and told me she often runs into this very problem. When your restaurant-coworking-space hybrid has to kick you out before the workday is over so it can do its real job, what are you supposed to do?

People who live and work in major cities have no shortage of coworking spaces at their disposal. There’s WeWork, of course, which has offices in 90 cities around the world and so many locations in New York City alone that it recently surpassed JP Morgan as the biggest tenant in Manhattan.

A coworking company called Industrious, though smaller and less well known than WeWork, has locations in more than two dozen cities across the country. The Wing, a women’s-only social club and coworking space, opened its doors in New York City in 2016 and has since expanded to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. Soho House, a social club, launched a coworking arm called Soho Works in 2015.

Given these options, why would a person looking for a place to work turn to a restaurant, especially if they’ll promptly be asked to leave as soon as the dinner shift starts?

For Pesek, the answer comes down to price and comfort. A WeWork hot desk costs anywhere between $350 and $550 per month depending on location — more than twice the cost of a Spacious membership. Other coworking spaces aren’t much cheaper. Coworking spaces range from $175 to $500 per month in Austin. A hot desk membership at The Yard, a popular Philadelphia coworking space, costs $350 per month.

“Even if you’re comparing it to coffee shop spending, the people who go to coffee shops to work probably spend at least $100 [each month] on coffee alone,” Pesek said.

Spacious isn’t the only company going after the subset of workers who can’t afford a WeWork but would like to work out of somewhere other than their neighborhood coffee shop. There’s KettleSpace in New York City, Switch Cowork in Austin, and WEach Seats in Philadelphia. Like Spacious, these coworking spaces operate out of restaurants and hotels during off-peak hours. They’re less expensive than dedicated coworking spaces like WeWork, and more reliable than coffee shops that haven’t fully committed to the coworking game.

KettleSpace’s Diviera Drive location.

From a business standpoint, the restaurant-as-coworking model is fundamentally different from that of its predecessors. WeWork, for example, makes money by renting out office space and subdividing that space into dozens of tiny offices, which it then rents out to fledgling startups at a premium.

Its tenants pay a higher price per square foot than they would at a regular office, but since the spaces they’re renting are smaller and the lease terms are shorter, tenants still end up saving money. WeWork also provides all of the extras — necessities like desks, chairs, and phone booths, as well as perks like snacks, coffee, and beer — that a regular landlord wouldn’t.

Unlike WeWork, which increasingly leases space to startups and other small companies, Spacious and KettleSpace are primarily marketing themselves towards individual workers. KettleSpace cofounder Andrew Levy told me that most of the company’s members are what he called “urban digital creatives” like designers, writers, and freelancers, as well as a “rapidly-growing segment of remote corporate workers.” Similarly, Pesek told me that telecommuters make up approximately 25 percent of Spacious’s membership and are its fastest-growing category.

“Employers are starting to recognize that giving their employees that option creates better work/life balance, better workplace satisfaction, and actually allows them to stay more productive by not having to waste so much time commuting,” he said.

The ability to work from anywhere is often presented as a perk, and it often is. I could be writing this story from my desk, or I could be writing it from a restaurant that has taken on a side gig as an office. I could even be writing it from a park, or a nail salon, or a train. But studies suggest that remote workers often feel more isolated and are more prone to burnout than those who work from offices.

As companies compete to offer more outlandish perks, remote work doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. You’ve probably heard about Facebook’s employee arcade and on-site barber shop or Google’s in-house chef. Uber employees can get their laundry done on the company’s campus. Twitter reportedly offers on-site acupuncture for employees. Even WeWork-based startups have access to unlimited beer on tap and weekly networking events.

These benefits, innocuous as they may seem, ultimately contribute to the insidious flattening of work and leisure. If your office has an in-house chef, why go home for dinner? Similarly, if you have the ability to work from anywhere, you may also start to feel like you should always be working. As more social clubs and restaurants become coworking spaces, the distinctions between places we go to for fun and places we go to for work will become even fuzzier.

The flexibility afforded to office workers and tech company employees is supposed to trickle down to the very lowest rungs of the employment ladder. Uber, for example, tells prospective drivers that it gives them more flexibility than a yellow cab company would. “Do you want to set your own schedule and only drive when it works for you or your family?” its website reads, “Or do you want to commit to working on somebody else’s schedule and have less flexibility in your day-to-day life?”

In theory, using a car that you already own to make a bit of extra money on your own time is a great idea. In practice, though, Uber and Lyft drivers have been known to work long hours for little pay and occasionally have to sleep in their cars because they’re too tired to go home. Some drivers work for both Uber and Lyft because they can’t make enough money working for a single company, let alone working every now and then for extra cash.

KettleSpace’s location at The Ribbon in New York City.

Much like gig economy workers, freelancers are another class of laborers who should theoretically reap the benefits of flexibility. Unlike 9-to-5 workers, freelancers can work whenever and for whomever they want. But they also lack the consistent pay, benefits, or labor protections that come with a regular job. (When I was a freelance writer, it wasn’t uncommon to get checks months after my work had been published.) In practice, the hypothetical flexibility of freelancing often feels more like a constant need to be working or researching or networking, since you never know when your next check will come in, or whether it will come at all.

Despite these setbacks, freelance and remote jobs aren’t going anywhere. A joint study conducted by Upwork and the Freelancers Union advocacy group in 2017 found that freelance workers made up about a third of the US workforce that year. By 2027, more than half of American workers will be freelancers, the study found. Another Upwork study, this one from 2018, found that a growing number of companies are beginning to hire remote employees. Those people are going to need a place to work — and high-end restaurants, which could otherwise be considered a place to escape the pressures of work for just a few hours, are stepping in to fill the gap.

In his 2009 book Elsewhere, USA, Princeton University sociologist Dalton Conley referred to this as “weisure,” or the merging of work and leisure. This breakdown of the boundary between labor and enjoyment, Conley wrote, is ultimately destructive, even if it’s disguised as a boon for both employee and employer.

“This work-and-play blurring ends up enhancing [their] sense of alienation,” he wrote. “It’s not just that they feel like they need to be working when they are ostensibly supposed to be having fun or, conversely, that they should stop working and be there for their kids, spouse, or friends.”

Conley continued: “It’s not just that [they] need to be everywhere at once. It’s that once disparate spheres have now collided and interpenetrated each other, creating a sense of ‘elsewhere’ at all time. ... Home is more like work and work is more like home and the private and public spheres are indistinguishable from each other.”

The power lunch and the regular lunch break are both dead. Retail may soon die along with them. In Manhattan, more than one-fifth of storefronts are vacant. In other parts of the country, the advent of online shopping has led to the demise of big-box stores and shopping malls. Some companies are adapting to the fact that their brick-and-mortar locations are no longer shopping destinations. Spacious has begun entering into short-term lease arrangements with landlords to create temporary Spacious workplaces in empty storefronts — kind of like a pop-up shop, but instead of buying things, you’re paying to work.

Restaurants are now workspaces. Retail stores are now workspaces, and they’re also landlords. Coworking companies like WeWork operate workspaces, but they also own and lease apartments and are also opening convenience stores. You can work from anywhere, and work is everywhere.

Spacious, KettleSpace, and their many competitors are capitalizing on yet another shift in the work-life balance ecosystem. These companies are responding to a real need for shared workspaces — a need which exists because of a desire for “flexibility,” even if that flexibility means you can never really escape work. Soon, every major city will be full of these hybrid restaurant-coffee-cowork-cafes, and the lines between work and play will blur even further.

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