If you’re like me, you find it much too easy to “productively procrastinate” at home. I often find myself frozen, unable to write a single line of code, because I can’t stop thinking about how cute my cat is, or how long it’s been since I vacuumed the couch cushions.
Eventually, I figured out an effective way to change my behavior; I became what is often referred to as a “coffee shop squatter” and was able to free myself of distractions.
However, working away from home comes with its own host of first world problems: I believe there are very few things in life that are more infuriating than a flakey internet connection or the lack of an electrical outlet when you need one.
In this post, I share with you my evaluations of ten different businesses. About half are well known franchises; the rest are little known to non-locals.
|Location||Atmosphere||Food||Electrical Outlets||Internet Speed||Overall Score|
|Grand Traverse Pie Company||9||9||10||10||38|
|Grand River Coffee||10||9||5||5||29|
|Barnes N’ Noble||8||4||1||8||21|
Explanation of Scores
For each location, I gave a score out of 10, for a maximum score of 40, in the following categories:
- I considered things like the look and feel of the space, noise level, and seating comfort.
- Food was rated on overall variety, quality, and customer service. Pricing was not considered as an important factor. I am not a coffee drinker, let alone a connoisseur, so quality of coffee was disregarded too.
- Electrical Outlet Access
- The main question I considered was, “how easy was it, on any given day, to get a decent table and an outlet to plug in to?” This can vary a lot based on the popularity of a particular location and the time of day you visit.
- Internet Speed
- I did internet speed tests at each location, but I did not record the scores. I didn’t feel the scores were as important as how many times, if ever, I was inconvenienced by the internet speed.
Biggby is on my blacklist. I know that for a lot of people, Biggby is their everyday go-to coffee shop and may find this review offensive. If you are a Biggby regular, please free to comment and explain to me what you see in this place, because I can’t find anything redeeming. I’ve never managed to sit inside of one for more than hour, and my last few visits were out of last resort sheer desperation. Most of my experiences are at the Biggbys in the East Lansing area.
The first and only description I can conjure up when thinking of Biggby’s atmosphere is “high school cafeteria.”
Much like a cafeteria, Biggby has overbearing white fluorescent lights. Even though most locations feature large windows, don’t be deceived. Somehow their fluorescent lights still manage to wash out all of the natural light.
Also, like my experiences in high school, the tables are so tightly packed that you are afraid to move in fear of hitting the person next to you or behind you. It’s impossible not to be uncomfortably aware of everyone in the store, noticing when they get up, smelling what they are eating, and hearing what they are talking about.
For some people, this may not be a big deal, but I think the majority of highly caffeinated people use the bathroom fairly frequently. If you want to use the restroom at Biggby, you have to ask the barista for a key. I don’t see what purpose the key has, because using a key doesn’t prevent people from making messes or keeping non-customers out (they don’t ask for a receipt when requesting the key). The most annoying part, however, is if someone else is using the restroom; you have to wait for them to return it to the barista, where there is no bathroom line formation. Otherwise, you have to keep sitting back up and down from your table, bumping into and inconveniencing your neighbors.
Want something other than bagels, stale cookies, or coffee? Good luck. Even their tea selection is cheap stuff you can get at the grocery store.
This is my face when a coffee shop openly advertises WIFI, but yet doesn’t supply enough electrical outlets.
As you will find out in the other reviews, Biggby is not the only offender.
As I said, earlier, I’ve never managed to stay for longer than an hour. I had difficulties getting even simple static pages to load. It didn’t seem to matter whether or not it was packed or empty.
Visit only if you are a masochist.
9. Tim Hortons
There are thousands of Tim Hortons locations. I’ve been to six different locations and they are more miss than hit. Out of the six places, the Port Huron and East Lansing locations were the only bearable ones. A few of them are open 24 hours, which can be a big selling point if you are looking to pull an all nighter.
The Tim Hortons atmosphere is decent. It’s a cookie cutter coffee shop, with nothing overly unique about it. It’s still probably not a place you would want to spend the whole day. However, the inadequacies are not impossible to ignore. I found if I plug my headphones in, I can usually tune out the noise, bad lighting and forget where I am.
They have a good mix of fair quality sandwiches, soups, and coffee. Like Biggby though, they only have your basic grocery store tea. A lot of people love Tim Hortons donuts, but several times, I’ve been sold stale donuts if I order anything other than the Tim Bits. For the amount of hype, I was pretty underwhelmed.
You will find and get a table, but you’ll soon discover that Tim Hortons has a special talent for hiding outlets and blocking them by couches, plants, and other interior design objects.
The Port Huron area location has the bare minimum of what you need to get by for work. It’s slow, but it will get the job done. You might have some issues playing videos, but other than that, you should be able to do everything you want. I docked some points off for Tim Horton in this area, because some locations don’t offer WIFI.
Very location dependent. You’ll have to visit your local Tim Hortons to know whether or not it will work for you, but they are usually great for late nights when other places are not open.
8. Panera Bread
I’ve went to Panera Bread with the intent to work only for a few times. I usually go for the food. I haven’t had the greatest experiences so far.
It feels more like a restaurant than a coffee shop. That’s because it is a restaurant. There is a good amount of space and booths. The lighting is relaxing, and the interior design is better than average. What stands out the most is the NOISE. You could end up working near a screaming toddler. You can even see a few kids in the picture I took at the Ann Arbor location. You’ll probably have to clean your own table before you sit down at it.
They offer quality and variety foods and desserts. They offer anything you would find at Tim Hortons, but with higher quality and more options. They have sandwiches, soups, salads, pastas, cookies, brownies, and pie.
My only criticism of their food is that it seems “made without love” and bulk produced. It seems like they microwave the pasta before serving. The soups and some foods taste like they sit in warmers. With that said, their tomato soup is my all-time favorite.
There is a fair amount of outlets, in the 3-4 range, but most disappointedly, none at the booths. They are usually located at the odds and ends tables. Some are in the worst locations, such as next to the drink dispenser where there is a lot of foot traffic. If you go at the right time though, you could get a great spot.
I was not impressed with the internet speed. Pages would load… eventually. It was frustrating to listen to music, because playback would stop frequently. I lasted a couple of hours before getting fed up with it and leaving.
This is the place to work, if you also have an appetite to conquer.
7. Barnes N’ Noble
I used to be a Barnes N’ Noble regular in Port Huron and would travel a good amount of distance to work there.
There are not many things in this world that smell better than a new book. Most locations have a few couches or chairs you might be able to nab, and they might even be in a nice secluded cozy spot, but unfortunately, and most likely, you’ll have to work at whatever cafe Barnes and Noble is partnered with at the location. I enjoy taking breaks from working and stroll around to look at the books. It feels like a library, but they have the latest and greatest books.
The food is nothing special – stereotypical coffee shop food offered. If the partnered cafe isn’t a Starbucks, it won’t offer anything better than a Starbucks.
The most disappointing thing about Barnes N’ Noble is that, for such a huge space, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one outlet. With as many bookstores that are closing, I don’t know why they don’t make them more laptop friendly to generate more customers. I’ve never been able to get an outlet in any of the three locations that I tried visiting, though I may have spotted one once.
No complaints about the internet, but given the lack of outlets, I haven’t been able to spend too much time using it.
Great for the duration of your computer battery’s charge.
6. Theio’s Restaurant
A little known Lansing, MI restaurant. It’s open 24 hours a day too, so it makes for a convenient late night location.
It’s basically a Coney Island with internet. I’ve had a couple of creepy encounters here though. If I go to Theo’s, I usually go with a friend. The waitresses and waiters are nice, and service isn’t bad.
The food is similar to Coney Island. It’s made to order, so your food will be hot. They serve typical diner food. Basic chicken, burger, and salad dishes – more satisfying than what you would get off most coffee shop menus.
They have two rows of booths side by side and in the middle, there’s a power strip. I’ve never had problem finding an electrical outlet. The only downside is that you can’t sit anywhere else other than near the middle booths.
Fast, responsive internet, no complaints.
If you aren’t afraid of possibly having to interact with strangers of questionable character, this is a diamond in the rough.
Like Tim Hortons, I think Starbucks can be a little hit or miss depending on the location, but it has a far better track record. The only issues I’ve noticed are with the locations in college towns, such as East Lansing and Ann Arbor, which will be too packed for you to get a table. If I focus only on non-college town locations, my experiences have all been positive.
Very pleasant with modern, polished furniture, nice comfortable lighting, and superior interior design. Can be noisy when busy. One drawback is that the majority of locations have pretty small spaces.
Consisting of basic coffee shop food, your order will not be a full meal, but they do have food that will give you a little sustenance and nutritional value to get you through a longer work session. They have a superior tea and coffee selection.
In non-college town locations, I was very impressed. Starbucks understands the importance of electrical outlets. In the Omaha, NE and Port Huron, MI locations, I counted about ten outlets, which would be enough for twenty laptops. Unfortunately, other people are also aware of this, so it’s difficult to find a table at some locations, let alone an outlet.
No complaints, as I’ve never had an issue, but I have avoided the college town locations which I could foresee having issues.
Be prepared for crowds of people to ruin your stay.
4. Ypsilanti, MI Library
This review is only really helpful if you are a resident of the Ypsilanti area, otherwise, you can’t get a library card in order to use the WIFI, but you can become a member for a monthly fee. I haven’t looked into day passes.
This public library is better than some college libraries I have seen. It’s huge, with beautiful glass windows on the front facade, with a modern look on the outside and inside, and they host a number of free, cool public events.
They opened up a small, express version of a popular Ann Arbor coffee shop called B-24’s Expresso Bar. I have heard really good things about it, but I haven’t had a chance to order anything yet, so I can’t comment. It’s only an express version of the full B-24’s Expresso Bar, so their menu is pretty limited.
It’s a large library with a lot of space, even a designated quiet area work zone. You won’t have a problem getting an outlet or a spacious table.
Disappointment. The internet speed isn’t much better than dial-up. For such a beautiful library, how could they mess this up? I only go if I think I can put up with the depressingly slow speeds. Sometimes, it seems to come in waves, working decently for 10 minutes, then horridly just when you need it most. If you need to download anything such as a simple 10MB Powerpoint presentation, you’ll be forced to browse the books while you wait, and that’s assuming the download doesn’t time out and make you start over.
If you don’t need to stream or download anything, and only need to view simple websites, you can make this place work.
3. Grand River Coffee
The holy grail of coffee shops. Unfortunately everyone else realizes how awesome this place is too. If this place could expand their space, it would get a perfect 10 out of 10 in every category.
This place is top of the line. You’ll be greeted with an open space with cozy couch seats, surrounding a stylish fireplace and a trickling waterfall fountain. The lighting and ambiance of the room is what every other coffee shop should strive to achieve. However, even though this place is three times larger than any Starbucks or Tim Hortons, there just isn’t enough room for the popularity. On the worst of days, it gets cramped and stuffy. Also you have to worry about getting not only a table, but a parking space.
They have high quality paninis, salads, sandwiches, soups, all freshly prepared. They also have irresistible gelato ordered from a local city in Michigan. They could use a little more variety.
There are plenty of outlets, but again, this place is popular, so it’s always packed. You may have to fight someone for a table and an outlet.
If it’s not packed, the internet works fine, but it can get unbearably slow and flakey on busy days.
Within an hour of opening, or during the school off-season, this place is ideal.
2. Kate’s Downtown
Kate’s Downtown is one of my favorite places that no one knows about.
I would go to this place every day if I could. They have freshly cut flowers on every table, it’s always clean, bright, and happy. My favorite spots are at one of the two beautiful bay window seats. They are located downtown Port Huron. The biggest drawback is the limited opening hours, staying open until 4pm at the latest.
Everything here is fresh and homemade. It’s hard to find the words to describe the food. The recipes are specialized by the owner and they have a rotating, changing menu, so you’ll always have new options. It doesn’t matter if you are vegan, vegetarian, or a carnivore, you’ll find something satisfying.
The only complaint is that the portions are a little small, being quality over quantity, and I could probably eat 3 of their meals, and I’m a 100 lbs female. For bigger people, the quantity will definitely be unsatisfactory. They have breakfast food, salads, wraps, homemade desserts, and an assortment of other options.
There are a few, 3-4, and I’ve never had a problem getting one, but there would be problems if the restaurant were to get busy.
Outstanding internet speeds. It was at least three times faster than any other place. Greater even than those not reviewed in this post.
If you are okay with getting up early, and working during normal business hours, you won’t be disappointed, but they aren’t open in the evenings at all.
1. Grand Traverse Pie Company
A franchise that started in Traverse City, Michigan that boasts 13 locations around the state of Michigan. I only recently discovered Grand Traverse Pie Company as a great place to work, but I have been consistently impressed. I don’t have a single criticism to share with you. Their hours of operation are fantastic, they have multiple locations, large space, great food, internet, tables, and outlet access.
It’s interior design and overall feel is comparable to Panera Bread. However, it is less busy and as a result, it is less noisy, and more clean. Once I even witnessed an employee scrubbing the bottom legs of tables.
They have less variety than Panera Bread, but their food doesn’t lack for quality. After eating their pies, no other pie will be satisfactory. They offer soups, salads, sandwiches, pot pies, and unlimited coffee refills. At first their portions will appear small, but the food is so rich, it is surprisingly filling.
Before coming here, only in my imagination did a place exist where there was an outlet near every table. Every booth has it’s own personal outlet.
They have two routers, so be sure to try both. One performed horribly, the other amazing with speeds faster than some people have at their house.
A dream come true for every coffee shop squatter.
I only covered businesses that I thought would be the most pertinent to other people. The criteria I used when picking the ones to review follow:
- I had to have visited a fair number of times.
- It had to either be near a bigger town, a well known franchise, or exceptional.
The main conclusion I have drawn from all of my experiences, including the ones I didn’t review, is that I had much better luck going to the local, unknown places over larger chains like Starbucks and Tim Hortins. So I would strongly encourage doing a few internet searches and checking out your local shops. You may be surprised by what you find.
A Grain of Salt
Home for me over the last few years has carried a few names. I’ve been bouncing between mostly Michigan cities such as East Lansing, Port Huron, Mount Pleasant, Troy, and Ypsilanti, but I spent a summer in Chicago, and even stayed for an extended period of time in Omaha, Nebraska. In an attempt to be fair, I would like to provide you with a list of the different locations I have visited and the approximate number of visits made, because I recognize there can be a large variation in franchises from one location to the next.
|Location||Different city locations visited||Number of times visited|
|Starbucks||Ann Arbor, East Lansing(2), Port Huron, Omaha||50+|
|Grand River Coffee||East Lansing||50+|
|Kate’s Downtown||Port Huron||20+|
|Barnes N’ Noble||Ann Arbor, Port Huron, Troy||20+|
|Tim Hortons||East Lansing, Port Huron, Troy(3), Ypsilanti||15+|
|Biggby||East Lansing(2), Haslett, Troy||6|
|Grand Traverse Pie Company||East Lansing||5|
|Panera Bread||Ann Arbor, Chicago||5|