Look Behind the Counter of Claremont's Student-Run Cafés

(Jordan Wong • The Student Life)

The dining hall is the staple of most Claremont College students’ diets. But sometimes with our busy lives, the limited hours and meal swipes make eating there unrealistic. A fun, often easier, option is on-campus eateries. Some, including Jay’s Place and the Pit Stop, are run by the institution's dining service and don’t involve or employ students. Others are completely managed and operated by 5C students.

I have worked at the Grove House all four of my years at Pitzer. I’ve worked and eaten so many meals there, and for the most part, I know how we do things. I’ve also eaten at the other student-run cafes, but know very little about how they are run. Each kitchen runs a little bit differently and fills a different role on each campus. Each cafe faces different hardships and successes, and coming from one student cafe, I wanted to learn a bit more about others.

I had conversations with student managers from four student-run cafes on campus: The Motley, Coop Fountain, Shakedown Cafe and Grove House.

I spoke with a friend and fellow Grove House student manager, Jenna Loesberg PZ ’18 about her experience. Loesberg is the lead baker in the Grove House kitchen, which employs around 25-30 students, 2/3 of whom Loesberg would estimate are on federal work study.

Grove House employees not paid through federal work study receive payment through operating budget and profits. Restrictions regarding volunteer labor lessened the number of employees from previous semesters. This has been the biggest problem since the Grove House’s opening, according to Loesberg.

Though the Grove House lacks consistent staffing, Loesberg says that it excels at freshly baked bread and “the best cinnamon rolls you’ve ever had.” To the general student body, the Grove House serves not only as a cafe, but an event venue, hangout, study spot, and meeting space.

The Shakedown Cafe at Pitzer College employs around 30 students, who are paid through federal work-study money. According to general manager Eliza Schmidt PZ ‘20, the Shakedown also has a number of managers who are paid through their operating budget. It prides itself on being student-run with different student managers involved in various business activities. The same restrictions that have impacted the Grove House’s staff have also reduced their employee numbers.

All things considered, Schmidt described the beginning of the semester and opening for the Shakedown positively. “Bringing back pizza is always fun,” she said. Having new management leaders, new customers, into the space, and new music have been major highlights this year. Schmidt admitted that the Shakedown opened late and is, in fact, still in the process of fully opening and is prioritizing creating a positive and welcoming environment.

The Shakedown serves primarily as a restaurant and study/hangout spot to students. Its hope moving forward, Schmidt said, is to bring in more events, club meetings, art projects, and create more of a community aspect.

The Coop Fountain has a larger operation than either Pitzer eatery, open longer hours and with significantly more staff. Students from Pomona, Pitzer, Scripps, and CMC all work at the Coop Fountain with a total of nearly 45 employees. As the Coop Fountain isn’t a Pomona College owned eatery, students are paid through the operating budget that falls under ASPC accounts, and none of their employees are paid through federal work-study money.

Hiring and training new employees and opening up was a challenge for the Coop Fountain in the same way it has been for other student cafes. As general manager of the Coop Fountain, Devin Mercier, PO ‘20, wrote in an email to TSL, “there are a lot of nuances and things to know while working at the Coop and it is a lot to get used to.” Mercier feels that the Coop Fountain really excels at being a comfortable space for everyone to hang out. It’s a go-to spot after late night parties.

The Motley Coffeehouse is a small and intimate establishment that has so much hard work standing behind it. Megan O’Brien, SC ’19, head manager at the Motley explained some of the workings of the Motley that a casual Matcha ChaCha drinker might not appreciate. The Motley employs around 60 students total, over half of which are paid through federal work-study.

Many students wonder why Motley opens so late in the semester. O’Brien explained that eight out of ten of their managers and over half of their staff was new this semester. Training all of these people takes time. The Motley’s entire operation is student-run, including their finances, ordering, sourcing, and so many other responsibilities. Employees at the Motley learn far more than just making coffee.

The Motley is known as a great study and hangout space, but Motley managers hope to move towards having more events, more community organizing, and further engagement in the future. O’Brien added that the Motley recognizes and always takes into consideration the history of the space and who is welcome. Diversity and inclusion and making all people feel comfortable and welcome is a big priority for the Motley.

Working in a student cafe is a unique experience on a college campus. Employees at The Grove House, the Shakedown, the Coop Fountain, and the Motley work with their peers to serve their peers – and it can be both challenging and rewarding. The semester has been slow to start for each of the cafes with hiring and training in new employees and other bumps in the road, but all are learning, growing, and expanding as the study body does.