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Free coffee — with a catch — is coming to Massachusetts

Lizzy Schmidt had a free cup of coffee at Shiru Cafe in Providence.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Welcome to Shiru Cafe. Keep your cash. The coffee is free, as long as you are a university student and drink your beverage in-house.

The catch? You must give up some personal information: your name, your e-mail, your age, your field of study, your professional interests. And open yourself up to communications from Shiru’s corporate sponsors — companies that pay the cafe to reach its clients.

This is the cream and sugar of Shiru’s clever business model, a benign-seeming variation on the data-mining that drives so much modern commerce. At most coffee shops, the revenue stream is straightforward: Customers buy drinks. Here, companies buy access to customers and potential hires. The cafe is both a vendor of drinks and an intermediary connecting corporate recruiters to the youngest members of the American intelligentsia.


“What’s important to us is providing a space for students to learn more about the professional world after they graduate,” said Keith Maher, Providence store manager.

And if all of this seems a little off-putting — a commercial intrusion on your caffeine ritual, not to mention, privacy — it doesn’t seem to bother students who stream here in the least. The place is jammed. About 4,000 Brown University students have signed up for the Shiru treatment, and the cafe serves about 1,000 people a day during the school year, according to Maher.

“The information Shiru is ascertaining is the same information already out in the public, so I had no hesitation to give it up,” said Jacqueline Goldman, a master’s student in epidemiology.

Shiru arrives in the United States at a moment of heightened skepticism toward data-gathering, a lucrative industry that capitalizes on information many consumers consider trivial. Shiru’s success highlights the manifold ways that companies can ride the flood of consumer data — whether to sell consumers a product or, in the case of Shiru, to find workers in a competitive labor market.


As tech behemoths like Facebook and Google try to allay concerns over privacy, Shiru’s information-gathering on students has not drawn much scrutiny. The company says that student data is guarded closely against misuse and has so far been used only to create analytics on store attendance.

“We never, ever sell student data,” said Alex Inoue, Shiru’s general manager. “All of the data is protected safely and only used internally to provide students with access to professional opportunities.” He added that no third-party contractors have access to student data, and that Shiru does not give individual student information to companies.

Since its founding in Kyoto, Japan, five years ago, Shiru has opened 16 stores in Japan and four in India, all of which are located near major universities. And according to Inoue, in India, the cafes are located on campus because Shiru partners with the universities. The cafe has more than 50 corporate sponsors in Asia, including Microsoft, Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Accenture, Nissan, and Suzuki.

Now, to capture the market at elite schools in America, Shiru has planned an ambitious expansion. Providence is the first US outlet. By October, cafe executives hope to launch stores near Yale and Amherst College. Two other stores, near Harvard and Princeton, are slated to open later in the fall.

Juan Pablo Uribe and Stefan Hut, PhD students at Brown University, talked and enjoyed free coffee at Shiru Cafe. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Patrons and employees of the Providence cafe see Shiru’s mission as a win-win: a boon for companies hoping to woo top talent, and another way for caffeine-addled Ivy Leaguers to get hired. According to Maher, corporate sponsors sign on for an annual partnership with the cafe, and Shiru does not receive a commission for successful recruitment.


At the Providence location — smartly located next door to Brown’s center for career services — patrons said networking at Shiru feels harmless.

“I’m a college student. I’ll take any kind of job-hunting platform I can get,” said Jessica Bellows, a senior at Brown studying biomedical engineering. She and others noted that the promise of free beverages, not the interaction with recruiters, is the main lure for students. Shiru allows patrons one free cup of coffee or tea every two hours.

Corporate sponsors have three main ways of reaching students at Shiru: in-store advertising, including on coffee cups and HD monitors; e-mail communications, sent by Shiru on the company’s behalf; and site programming, such as on-premise chats over coffee between students and corporate recruiters.

Currently the Providence location has no corporate sponsors. Funding from the parent company, Enrission Inc., keeps the store afloat. (The store has hired two Brown students as paid interns to try to lock down sponsor companies.)

But, according to some patrons, the store, which opened in March, has already amassed a legion of loyal customers. During the school year, students began arriving at the store opening, 8:30 a.m., to snag a seat. By April, around 1,000 customers were visiting each day, according to Maher. At a “crazy-crowded” cafe, as one student described Shiru, wait times have been kept low thanks to online ordering.


Shiru Cafe in Providence.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Shiru vends only to university students and personnel. Faculty are charged $1 for beverages, and everyone pays $1 for to-go drinks, a policy that encourages customers to spend time on site.

The coffee, which comes from Rhode Island-based Downeast Coffee Roasters, is fair trade and organic certified, according to Maher. The teas come from a company in New Hampshire. Pastries include croissants, cookies, bagels, and doughnuts, and cost between $2 and $4, Maher said.

Without sponsors, Shiru’s Providence outpost has not yet advertised any companies or sent any corporate communications, customers said. But even when corporate sponsorships do appear, students believe any potential spam will be worth the free drinks.

“The savings are very big,” said Rushil Kumbhani, a junior at Brown studying biology, who estimated that he has saved at least $100 on coffee since Shiru opened in the spring. “They could send me an hourly newsletter and I wouldn’t mind.”

He wasn’t alone in expressing indifference about relinquishing personal data for a little personal gain.

“This is way more benign than other data-sharing that happens,” said Goldman, the epidemiology student, sipping on her free cold brew. “And at least I’m getting compensated for it.”

Graham Ambrose can be reached at graham.ambrose@globe.com.