New Amherst cafe raises the question: Is anything really “free”?

Photo by Flannery Langton ’22  Shiru Cafe is now open to professors and students in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Photo by Flannery Langton ’22

Shiru Cafe is now open to professors and students in Amherst, Massachusetts.

BY LIZ LEWIS ’22

At the new Shiru Cafe in Amherst, MA, any college student can enjoy a fresh cup of hot coffee for the unbeatable price of zero dollars. But there’s a catch: instead of paying with cash, you pay with personal information. 

Shiru Cafe, named for the Japanese word meaning “to know,” first expanded to the United States in February of 2018 with the opening of a cafe in Providence, RI — a minute’s walking distance from Brown University’s campus. CEO Yusuke Kakimoto founded Shiru’s parent company Enrission Inc. in Kyoto, Japan in 2013. Shiru’s mission, according to their website, has always been “to create a place where students can learn about the professional world and envision their future careers.” In practice, the goal of the business is to essentially be a middleman between college students and corporate sponsors looking to recruit. The cafe is cashless and closed to anyone who is not a student or professor at a university. Professors can buy coffee for $1 if they provide a school ID. College students, on the other hand, give up a few pieces of personal information in exchange for free coffee (so long as it stays in the cafe). 

Here’s how it works: to access these commodities, a student must download the Shiru Cafe app, which immediately prompts the user to create a profile. This step requires a few pieces of personal information, including name, phone number, email address, date of birth, institution, academic year, student ID, and major or concentration of study. Upon constructing and confirming a profile, the app provides a scannable code which entitles the student to unlimited free drinks, so long as they are spaced at least two hours apart. As long as the customer has the app, and as long as they remain a part of Shiru’s data system, they get free drinks.

The cafe provides a pleasant study space and opportunities to meet with potential employers. Shiru sells the information it collects directly to corporate sponsors, who use it for recruitment purposes. According to Shiru’s website, sponsors also gain unique advertising opportunities, as they can potentially have their logo and promotional information displayed on cups, in page ads, digital advertisements via the app, on the TV screens and through verbal promotion by baristas. Advertisement seems secondary, however, to the recruitment opportunities that this information exchange enables, both online and in person (via cafe-hosted meetings, events and interviews).

According to articles from WBUR and The New York Intelligencer, Shiru is already relatively well-known in Japan and India, in part due to its success in amassing big-name corporate sponsors, including the likes of Microsoft and J.P. Morgan Japan. If all goes well for Shiru, their presence in the United States will one day look similar — numerous cafes stationed near the country’s most prestigious college campuses and a number of notable and recognizable corporate sponsors. Next on the list of U.S. sites are Yale, Princeton and Harvard, all of which can expect cafe openings in the next few years. Their newest location is at 17 Kellogg Ave. in Amherst — close to both the University of Massachusetts flagship campus and Amherst College. 

Shiru’s business model might suggest a corporate, impersonal atmosphere to some, but this certainly doesn’t translate the ambience of the cafe. Many college-aged students in recent years share enthusiasm for a certain aesthetic: think vintage clothing, potted plants, quirky but homey designs, rustic bookshelves and fancy lattes topped with artwork of swirled froth. The brick building’s exterior is adorned with hand-painted portraits of various historical figures, including Emily Dickinson. Inside, the lighting is soft and natural and students chatter cheerfully amongst themselves over brightly colored mugs, while others focus quietly on a textbook or laptop. Rustic brick walls enclose various clusters of cozy, antique-looking chairs, a patchwork array of tables and dark wooden bookshelves that house potted succulents of all shapes and sizes. There’s no question — Shiru Cafe seems exceedingly familiar with the popular tastes of their collegiate demographic. 

“As a hermit, maybe it’s the shock value of being off campus, but I really like it,” joked Olivia Brandwein ’22, in reaction to Shiru’s aesthetic. “It feels very much like it’s designed with me in mind,” she laughed. “Very hipster-Brooklyn.” 

The only interruptions to the cafe’s eclectic, vintage ambiance are four giant flat-screen televisions, each showing the same sleek, animated slideshow advertising all that Shiru has to offer: a nice study space, outlets, free Wi-Fi and of course, free coffee. 

In an age in which many large corporations, such as Facebook, are coming under fire for their use of personal data, people are beginning to understand the value of their information. Some ask themselves whether sharing their data is worth a free coffee.

“I’m skeptical,” said an Amherst College student at Shiru while plugging information into the open app on her phone. “I’m willing to give it a shot, because I’ve done some research and I know that their mission is conducive to finding college students job opportunities,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not still hesitant.” 

Another patron, a UMass, Amherst student, didn’t mind parting with her information. “I think I’d be uncomfortable if I wasn’t 21 years old,” she said frankly. “I honestly just haven’t been alive long enough to have accumulated data that I’m really afraid of losing.” 

According to Bryan Nakayama, visiting lecturer in International Relations at Mount Holyoke and a specialist in cyber-politics and security, college students actually do hold valuable information, despite having less time to collect it. In fact, even seemingly inconsequential details — such as email address and phone number — are still worth keeping close. “Any piece of data that’s unique to you is data you should probably be very careful about sharing,” he said, “[as] these can be very easily used to build a profile about you.” Nakayama said that one way to preserve some anonymity is to put out conflicting information, such as multiple email addresses and phone numbers when possible.

For many, the exchange of personal data is a more pressing issue than company integrity. 

Brandwein said, “It feels uncomfortable to treat our information how we’d treat money.” 

Not everyone is against Shiru’s commodification of data, though — some see it as an improvement on a practice many large companies are already engaged in. For example, one freshman at Brown University pointed out that “almost every big tech company on the planet just hides behind hundreds of pages of terms and conditions, so they can access all of our data without being forthright about how it’s used.” He admires Shiru for at least being honest in their intentions and for using a model that revolves around customer consent. “It’s almost noble,” he added. “They’re respecting data as a valuable commodity by offering [something] in return for it.” To some, information already has a price, and Shiru’s willingness to include the customer in that transaction is an ultimately positive development. To others, information should be kept close, and Shiru’s public utilization of it represents what may be the beginning of an unhealthy or unnerving business trend.

For Nakayama, “there’s nothing uniquely bad about Shiru’s business model,” as it’s preferable to the backhand trading of information that unfortunately remains the norm for many big corporations. “At least they’re being honest and acknowledging that data is some sort of personal property that can be exchanged,” he said. People should still be careful, though, of the nuances that these companies make room for in their terms of use. “Just because a company says they won’t sell your data doesn’t mean they won’t in the future,” said Nakayama. “There are two ways to think about data, and those are data in motion and data at rest, which is stored. Companies can change their terms of service, often times in ways that consumers don’t understand [...] Once data is stored [on the internet], it can be reproduced regardless of whether you agree to it, so you can never be sure how it might be used in the future.” WiFi plays into this too, as it’s “basically the keys to the kingdom,” Nakayama added. “[Shiru] can see everything you do on their Wi-Fi, and I suspect there’s a reason why the coffee is only free if you drink it in their cafe.” 

The collection of personal data is also becoming increasingly relevant to a person’s well-being, as “credit decisions, hiring decisions [and] health insurance benefits […] will be impacted by the data you put out there [because] all information you put out contributes to your public presence,” said Nakayama. In the end, though, “it’s not a technological issue, [but] a political one. As someone who’s spent a lot of time learning about politics and cybersecurity, I think there’s importance in the phrase, ‘never trust a technological solution to a social problem.’” 

“Shiru has essentially taken the business model of a social media platform — data in exchange for a service — and actualized it,” said Nakayama. “It’s interesting, because it signals that perhaps certain forms of data are becoming valuable enough to sustain something like a brick and mortar building, which is a lot more expensive per customer served and per service rendered than something digital, like Facebook would be,” said Nakayama.

“I think personally the goal should always be limit your opportunities to be observed, but also that’s not always fun, and life should be fun,” Nakayama added. “What’s important is the knowledge that you have a matrix of information in the world, and it’s a question of privacy and autonomy whether you personally want to grow that matrix.”

Additional reporting by Flannery Langton ’22.

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