ASPC is considering a proposal to transfer the Coop Fountain to Pomona College Dining Services, which would put the college in charge of running the restaurant and paying for associated costs.
The Fountain, a student-owned-and-operated eatery at the heart of Pomona College’s campus, has never been particularly profitable.
But this year, when ASPC hired its first ever director of operations, Samuel Lin PO ’20, the body’s executive vice president Payal Kachru PO ’21 asked Lin to find out definitively if the Fountain’s financial status is a long-term concern.
“Kinda turns out that it is,” Kachru said.
Losses continue to pile up
The Fountain’s losses in the last decade have been massive, according to ASPC financial records. In the 2018-19 school year alone, the Coop Fountain was $114,467.91 in the red — with the exceptions of 2012-13 and 2015-16, the losses have totaled over $100,000 each year.
The Fountain is not necessarily expected to make more than it spends, due to its role as a campus service, associate dean of campus life Ellie Ash-Bala said via email. And because the Coop Store, which ASPC also owns, generally makes a profit, the goal historically has been for combined Coop operations to break even.
However, in the last 11 years, combined Coop Fountain and Store financials have only been in the black twice.
“The Coop Fountain [losses have] grown and the Coop Store income has not grown to keep up,” Ash-Bala said. “While [the] exact cause is not known, I attribute this to rising labor costs and food costs, while trying to keep our sale prices down for the campus.”
The financial responsibility of getting the Coop back to even falls solely on ASPC, Kachru said.
The body pays for the deficit directly out of its budget, which is almost entirely funded through student activity fees. In 2017-18, the ASPC budget was $516,500, while the Coop deficit was $90,947.18 — 17.6 percent the size of the budget.
That loss of funds has eaten into ASPC’s ability to allocate funds for clubs and activities.
“To have [nearly] 20 percent of the money that we get from student activity fees to be lost to students … is really concerning,” Kachru said. “I don’t know how future senates will feel about losing money that could have gone to funding more clubs, more activities, more social events.”
‘It was happening behind our backs’
These financial concerns, and a lack of potential solutions, led to the proposal to give Dining Services control of the Fountain.
However, student workers said they’ve been kept out of the loop on the proposal and fear it could result in changes to the number of student staff — currently about 40 students — as well as to the Fountain’s tight-knit community and student-driven culture.
Several of the Coop Fountain’s employees said they were not consulted by ASPC about the prospective transfer until its president, Miguel Delgado PO ’20, and Kachru informed them of the proposal in a meeting Feb. 12.
“It was a very heated conversation,” Delgado said at a Feb. 13 ASPC Senate meeting. “It wasn’t a fun conversation.”
Kachru said workers were not informed until recently because Dining Services only submitted a formal proposal — which she characterized as “barebones” and lacking key information — last month.
But the ASPC Senate has been discussing transferring the Fountain to Dining Services since September, initially as a way to add a meal replacement option for Pomona students.
“It was happening behind our backs, which was a little frustrating and confusing because we’re the ones that work there,” said Justė Simanauskaitė PO ’21, a manager at the Fountain.
Although ASPC operates the Coop Fountain, its officials have not been very involved in the eatery’s management in recent years, Kachru admitted.
“It’s definitely fallen through the cracks,” she said. “I can see why, because [executive] positions are so huge. … I just didn’t have enough time for the Coop.”
The disconnect is forcing both sides to play catch-up, and that’s left Fountain workers unsure what changes might be on the table.
“It was happening behind our backs, which was a little frustrating and confusing because we’re the ones that work there.”
–Justė Simanauskaitė PO ’21
Devin Mercier PO ’20, also a Coop Fountain manager, said he worries that under Dining Services management, student employment could resemble something similar to how Claremont McKenna College’s Hub Grill operates, with a few students on each shift rather than a majority-student staff.
Much of the Coop Fountain’s student staff, from Pomona and other 5Cs, are first-generation, low-income students, Mercier said. “Coopsters” rely on the jobs as a significant source of income, employees said.
“Even working for an hour, getting that minimum wage of $13, that means a lot,” Simanauskaitė said. “That’s the only way I make money for myself.”
Kachru and Lin committed to keeping the Fountain’s student staff intact.
“Student jobs need to be preserved,” Kachru said. “Having that guaranteed is honestly our biggest priority.”
Jose Martinez, the general manager of Dining Services, also said he wants to maintain or increase student employment levels.
“If the union [representing dining workers] says ‘I’m sorry, but only union workers can cook and do these tasks,’ then maybe it’s a deal breaker for us because we really want to keep the program that we have,” Martinez said.
International students could be hurt most if student employment drops, Simanauskaitė said, because the Fountain does not consider work-study eligibility as a factor when hiring student employees, a major advantage for visa-holding students who are not eligible for federal work-study.
“I know a lot of people even sending money back home — that’s what their family depends on,” she said.
But job losses aren’t students’ only concern. Mercier and Simanauskaitė said the strong community among Coop Fountain workers could be at risk.
For instance, Simanauskaitė’s boss, Chris Lucero, taught her how to drive, she said.
“I know that’s not a part of the job description. But that, I think, is a part of what Pomona community should be,” she said.
ASPC leaders expect Dining Services to send them a revised proposal in the next few weeks. At the Feb. 13 meeting, Delgado said the Coop Committee would likely not present a recommendation to the Senate until after spring break.
But Coop Fountain managers say that Dining Services employees have been acting like the acquisition is already a done deal.
According to both Mercier and Simanauskaitė, members of Dining Services have visited the Fountain multiple times in recent weeks to map out changes they could potentially make.
“They were just walking around and pointing, saying ‘Oh, we could change this and we can push this.’ It’s just so rude and so incompetent and so inhumane,” Simanauskaitė said.
Martinez acknowledged his staff’s presence created tension, but said they needed to examine the eatery to formulate their proposal.
“We had to know what’s in the Coop, what’s in the Sagehen [Cafe] because I honestly have never been there,” he said. “In my two years here, I’ve been there just in the front of the house.”
Martinez said he envisions renovations, an expanded menu and longer late-night hours at the Fountain as part of a potential Dining Services takeover.
This is not the first time Dining Services has considered acquiring the Coop Fountain. According to Ash-Bala, a similar proposal was raised “two or three years ago.”
“No concrete plans or proposals were ever introduced,” she said. “There were then some changes in Dining Services management and the idea was put on hold while they hired a new general manager and worked on fully staffing the dining halls.”
ASPC’s Coop Committee will now be co-chaired by one of the Fountain’s student managers, Kachru said, in an effort to improve communication between the two groups.
For its part, the Fountain has been working hard to lower its deficit by piloting new revenue strategies, cutting staffing and reducing costs, employees said, and they feel they deserve a chance to continue trying before losing student ownership altogether.
“We are ready, we want to help this place if we really need to,” Simanauskaitė said. “But you’ve got to tell us what to do.”
This article was updated Feb. 21 at 11:33 a.m. to clarify the language in the headers and axis titles of the two graphs, and add 2018-19 data to the Fountain annual losses graph.