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Farewell, Shiru Cafe

With less than an hour to go before New Haven’s branch of the Japanese-owned Shiru Cafe closed for the last time, the place was almost empty. It was a balmy Friday afternoon just before the end of August, but inside, the AC was pumping cold air into the cafe’s cavernous interior. A cluster of baristas and a manager huddled at the back of the café, leaving the register unattended, while a handful of stray students dotted some of the cafe’s many tables and chairs. No one went up to order a drink. Only half an hour remained until the cafe would shutter its doors, fewer than four months after it opened on College Street. It was a swift and ignominious defeat for a coffee shop that branded itself on social media as “one of the most innovative cafes on the planet.”

The divine inspiration for Shiru’s business model hit its founder, Yuliy Kakimoto, while he was on a snowboarding trip years ago, according to the cafe’s website. By some bizarre alchemy, a car ride through a “long tunnel” during that trip inspired Kakimoto to conceive of a coffee shop that, instead of making a profit by selling coffee, would gather data from students and sell it to companies looking to recruit them. (As of the cafe’s closing date, the “sponsors” page on Shiru New Haven’s mobile app listed no companies.)

I had known about Shiru—which sparked controversy in the United States with its policy barring entry to anyone without a university ID— since early May, when it opened its third U.S. location, in New Haven. Spurred by Facebook ads promising free coffee for “#collegestudents,” I had logged onto Shiru’s website to see exactly what the fuss was all about.

Immediately after loading the homepage, I was waylaid by the “Shiru Cafe Bot,” who politely invited me to start a conversation in a simulated text chat box. But before I could ask any questions, the bot demanded to know whether I was a “student!”, “employer!”, “university professional!”, or “none of the above!” After I replied, my ebullient interlocutor sent me to the app store to download the Shiru Cafe app. I pressed on.

The app required me to set up an account with my Yale email and student ID number, and subsequently inquired about my area of study, employment history, and IT skills. I had a sneaking suspicion that my answers— “Humanities,” “lifeguard,” and “None of them”—would disappoint. I prayed that the Shiru Cafe Bot wouldn’t find out.

Finally, the app asked me to select my desired industry from a drop-down menu of one hundred- plus options, which ranged from the predictable (“Private Equity,” “Management Consulting”) to the quaint (“Dairy,” “Furniture”) to the creepily vague (“Outsourcing/Offspring”) to the downright insidious (“Plastic,” “Tobacco”). I selected “Newspapers,” and my account was complete.

I didn’t make it to Shiru before classes ended last spring, but the cafe popped up on my social media feeds all summer. In May, two prominent members of the New Haven community—New Haven Independent reporter Tom Breen and immigrant rights activist John Lugo— approached the cafe on separate occasions and filmed tense exchanges with its manager, Barbara Jeanna Lafond (who declined to comment for this story), in which they questioned whether Shiru’s business model would exacerbate the city’s town-gown inequality.

During the exchange with Breen, Lafond defended Shiru’s exclusionary policy: “We’re trying to change the normal way of doing things, so that students don’t have to go through what was uncomfortable in the past,” she said. (Ah, finally, a solution to the crippling anxiety I feel every time I walk into Blue State and brush elbows with a townie.) Soon after, Havenly Treats, a Yale-founded collaborative that trains refugee chefs in New Haven, ended its contract with Shiru and issued a public rebuke.

“I refuse to give a penny to them, and everyone in the community who cares about justice and inclusion should do the same,” read one Facebook review from a Yale graduate student. Another review simply read: “Racism, classism, elitism. Nah.”

In mid-June—a month-and-a-half after the initial controversy over the cafe’s opening— Shiru announced in a cryptic press release titled “Shiru Café USA New Business Model Expands Community Reach” that it was opening up its American locations to the wider public.

But even after Shiru’s gesture toward inclusivity, something about the core of its business model—collecting data from cash- strapped, caffeine-dependent college students in order to help corporate recruiters—still felt wrong.

I returned to Shiru’s website looking for answers and, ignoring persistent “hey there!” messages from my old friend, the Shiru Cafe Bot, I stumbled onto the “Shiru Cafe Blog,” which promises to keep Shiru’s loyal customers abreast of the company’s progress.

“Shiru,” an early blog post informed me, means “knowledge” in Japanese. After snooping around the blog for about an hour, it became clear to me that the people running Shiru have one epistemological fascination in particular: the “millenial.”

Across the blog, articles abound with titles like “What a Millennial Wants.”

“From hiring to training to attrition, leadership needs to understand what makes a ‘millennial’ tick,” advises one post.

Another encourages businesses to woo millennials by appealing to their “freedom loving attitudes.”

If you’re interested in hearing more of the cafe’s sage business advice, Shiru even published a short ebook this spring titledRecruiting: The Gen-Z Perspective. Among other New Age-y business strategies, the book encourages companies to develop an enticing corporate image as part of their recruiting process—because, as Shiru confidently asserts, “Gen Z is finely attuned to branding.”

Millennials, Shiru seemed to be saying, are “principled,” but those principles can be easily bent into fodder for corporate recruitment with the right “branding.” Young people believe that “hierarchy is something that should be deconstructed”—but they can also be lured into a cafe barred to the general public by the promise of a free cup of joe.

“Mr. Kakimoto, a millennial, understands the unique needs and opportunities facing students of his generation as well as employers seeking to hire the best and brightest,” reads yet another blog post on Shiru’s website. I, a millennial, would prefer that Mr. Kakimoto stick to snowboarding.

– Jack McCordick is a junior in Branford College. Yonatan Greenberg, a junior in Saybrook College, contributed reporting.

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