At Shiru Cafe in Providence, R.I., students “pay” for coffee, but not with money.
Shiru Cafe looks like a regular coffee shop. Inside, machines whir, baristas dispense caffeine and customers hammer away on laptops. But all of the customers are students, and there’s a reason for that. At Shiru Cafe, no college ID means no caffeine.
“We definitely have some people that walk in off the street that are a little confused and a little taken aback when we can’t sell them any coffee,” said Sarah Ferris, assistant manager at the Shiru Cafe branch in Providence, R.I., located near Brown University.
Ferris will turn away customers if they’re not college students or faculty members. The cafe allows professors to pay, but students have something else the shop wants: their personal information.
To get the free coffee, university students must give away their names, phone numbers, email addresses and majors, or in Brown’s lingo, concentrations. Students also provide dates of birth and professional interests, entering all of the information in an online form. By doing so, the students also open themselves up to receiving information from corporate sponsors who pay the cafe to reach its clientele through logos, apps, digital advertisements on screens in stores and on mobile devices, signs, surveys and even baristas.
According to Shiru’s website: “We have specially trained staff members who give students additional information about our sponsors while they enjoy their coffee.”
The website for the Japanese-owned cafe also explains Shiru’s mission and philosophy: “Through a free drink we try to give students some information which sponsor company would like to inform exclusively for university students to diverse the choices of their future career.”
Companies can host recruitment sessions inside the cafe. Two Brown students, in a letter to The Brown Daily Herald, called for a boycott of the cafe in December, calling into question the principles of some sponsor companies:
“According to The Herald’s article about the Shiru Cafe, ‘last year, 40 percent of JP Morgan Japan’s new hires were Shiru Cafe patrons.’ This statistic is alarming, given that JP Morgan engaged in deceitful financial practices which likely contributed [to] the 2008 financial crisis and then became the only large financial institution to make a profit during the crisis.”
But if handing over personal data seems invasive, Ferris said the students don’t seem to mind. She doesn’t think she has seen a single customer refuse to give up the data.
It certainly didn’t seem to bother Nina Wolff Landau, a junior at Brown University. She is studying environmental studies, which the cafe already knows. Landau said the data collected are easily accessible on LinkedIn or other websites with a quick Google search.
“Maybe I should have been more apprehensive, but everyone has your information at this point anyway,” she said. “To give out my name and email and what I study does not seem so risky to me.”
Owned by Japanese company Enrission, Shiru Cafe operates similar shops in Japan and India. In other locations, corporate sponsors have included big names such as Microsoft, Nissan and Suzuki.
In response to a request for more information, Alex Inoue, Shiru Cafe’s general manager, wrote in an email that the cafe does not give out data on specific students. But it does provide general, aggregate data such as student majors and expected graduation years.
Sitting at the Shiru Cafe location in Providence, Daniel Traver, environmental engineering student at Brown, said he thinks future corporate sponsorships will bring in more career-focused students — but also more controversy.
“I think there will be some sort of pushback. I think a lot of people could be against some of those sponsors,” Traver said.
But corporate connections aside, should students be more wary of giving up so much personal information? Nicholas Tella, director of information security at Johnson & Wales, a private nonprofit university that has a campus in Providence, was a little more skeptical than the customers inside Shiru Cafe.
“If they’re giving you something for free, this data that’s being collected, for any vendor, there seems to be more value in the data than in the product,” Tella said.
In an article in New York Magazine, Jacob Furst, a professor of computer security at DePaul University, said that concerns could arise if students were required to connect to the cafe’s Wi-Fi, which would allow access to a much wider range of information that could be accessed by third parties.
Right now, Shiru Cafe in Providence doesn’t have any sponsors. Ferris said the student information she and her staff are collecting will be used to narrow down the companies the cafe will bring on as sponsors. She said the student information is securely held and will not be sold to third-party companies.
“They’re very good about keeping everyone’s information close. They don’t sell it, they don’t do anything of that sort,” Ferris said.
The Providence location is the only Shiru Cafe currently operating in the U.S. But the company hopes to open up more cafes near Amherst College, Harvard, Yale and Princeton.