The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

Student workers keep coffee flowing, food supplied

When students cannot escape to local Hyde Park eateries, campus dining provides them with a multitude of options. But for students who absolutely have no time between classes to eat at Bartlett or Pierce, much less cross the Midway to go to B-J, and are out of flex dollars to use at Hutch, their ray of hope for fuel lies in the student-run coffee shops: Cobb Coffee Shop, Ex Libris, Uncle Joe’s, and Grounds of Being, the Divinity School Coffee Shop.

These coffee shops, while supervised by various departments in the University, are for the most part independent businesses operated by and for students on campus. Jennifer Kennedy, the Coffee Shop coordinator for Office of the Reynolds Club and Student Activities (ORSCA), commended the coffee shops’ different general managers for the initiative and leadership they take in their role.

“Simply put, I directly oversee the student managers of the coffee shops as the only link between the administration and the coffee shops,” Kennedy said. “But they run it themselves. They come to me to give most of their ideas, I tell them my ideas, and then they take the initiative to implement them. I am amazed by the countless hours everyone puts in to the coffee shops to make sure each is an actual, solvent, running business.”

So for those students who thought coffee was sold on campus only at Starbuck’s and have only 10 minutes in between classes, here is a rundown of those independent coffee shops:

•Cobb Coffee Shop—One of the oldest of the student-run coffee shops, Cobb Coffee Shop has been on campus since Cobb Hall was remodeled in the 1960s.

Students have managed Cobb, a basement refuge for those who do not leave the building during the school day, since its inception.

Kat Hill, a fourth-year in the College and the general manager of Cobb, said that it’s the independent, student-run nature of Cobb that makes it special.

“This is a student-run business; we decided what ends up on the walls, from the posters to our collection of foreign coins,” Hill said, pointing to a poster hanging on a column with coins taped on it.

Hill said that while supervision of Cobb switched from the dean of students to ORSCA earlier this year, Cobb is still independently managed, and its inclusion in ORSCA has strengthened the cooperation among Cobb, Ex Libris, and Uncle Joe’s, the other two coffee shops under ORSCA’s administration. Hill’s salary, as well the salaries of the 14 counter staff and three assistant managers in Cobb, is dependent on sales. Hill and her assistant managers also take care of day-to-day duties, including oversight, invoicing, inventory, personnel, and marketing.

Many of Cobb’s customers are University Hospital staff, students, and facilities staffers. Hill said that Cobb had a slump the past years for several reasons: the opening of Bartlett Dining Commons, inflation, and new health codes passed by the city (which limit meat and chicken products from vendors). Business has picked up this year, in part because of marketing through ORSCA, which put fliers in first-year packets during Orientation week, and because of a new marketing campaign: “I Heart Cobb” posters featuring a picture of Jesus Christ.

Serving food from a variety of Hyde Park restaurants, including the Snail, Maravillas’, the Nile, Cedars of Lebanon, and Rajun Cajun, Cobb also prides itself on its relatively cheap coffee prices (45 cents for those who bring their own mugs) to the caffeine-addled student body.

“Having our record player at the center of our counter, playing music all the time, we want to make Cobb a very social place,” Hill said. “It’s a great place to hang out with friends and grab a bite to eat. We really try very hard to put prices as low as possible. This way, we can continue to be a service to both students and the University.”

• Uncle Joe’s—Open until late at night, the former Second Floor Coffee Shop, renamed in 2001, has been offering pool, foosball, and cheap Happy Hours for students in the Reynolds Club since 1996. Owned by ORSCA but managed by students, Uncle Joe’s has enhanced its gaming atmosphere with a 17-member student staff described as “funny, beautiful, and sexy,” (full disclosure: Garth Johnston, the Editor in Chief of the Maroon, is a barista at Uncle Joe’s) reupholstered furniture, and refurbished pool tables; new arcade games are coming soon.

“This is where students can come to eat, play, and relax instead of studying, which they could do in the McCormick Lounge downstairs,” said Tricia Apperson, Uncle Joe’s general manager and a fourth-year in the College.

Apart from the regulars who come in for the food and coffee, RSOs often hold meetings and events in the lounge of Uncle Joe’s. The events at Uncle Joe’s include the University Poolplayers’ Association’s meetings every Monday night and Game nights sponsored by Noctus Sero (a new branch of the Student Care Center), which promotes healthy nightlife.

Apperson said that coffee is a consistent seller during the day; peak time for food platter sales is from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Uncle Joe’s, as well as most of the other coffee shops on campus, had some problems implementing new University regulations of worker’s compensation insurance and new city ordinances requiring that food establishments maintain the food at the temperatures at which they are delivered.  Because Uncle Joe’s has food coolers instead of heated units, all of the food is brought at 40 degrees, with a microwave available and a second one on its way.

Being in the same building as Einstein Bros and Hutch Commons, Uncle Joe’s has a lot of competition. Apperson said that their biggest challenge is trying to give students the incentive to walk up stairs. Some of the specials that Uncle Joe’s has implemented include Early Bird and Happy hour specials, in which beverages’ prices, like coffee and soda, are reduced, and PimpJuice, a new non-carbonated energy drink from the rapper Nelly Uncle Joe’s is offering this fall.

Apperson said that the Uncle Joe’s staff has really connected this quarter, finding themselves talking about life at the end of the day. She then pointed out signs that the counter staff made for each other, with some saying “Horacio=koala” and “Eric-tall and Nordic, You can’t afford it.”

“One of the most important things our staff gets from here is how to work with peers, how to work for peers, how to be professional, and how to work on your feet,” Apperson said. “A common bond between our staff and our customers is understanding. Most of our new staff is coming into their jobs at Uncle Joe’s with previous customer service experience.”

•Ex Libris—It’s name, Latin for “out of the books,” is fitting for a coffee shop located in the Regenstein Library that requires students to technically leave the library. Located on the A-level of the Reg, students have to pass a back stairway to get to the coffee shop, a former student canteen that was upgraded to full-fledge student-run business in 1979.

Like Cobb and Uncle Joe’s, Ex Libris is student-managed; Kirk L. Schmink, a third-year in the College, is the general manager of Ex Libris, with much of the financial and personnel responsibilities falling on his head and the head of his two assistant managers, who are also undergraduates. Ex Libris also employs 10 counter staffers, mainly undergraduates in the Humanities.

Many of the vendors that serve Cobb and Uncle Joe’s also serve Ex Libris, including University Market, the Snail, Food Evolution, and Rajun Cajun.

Schmink said that the profits of Ex Libris are looking pretty healthy this year, with its books in the black for the quarter. Sales were slow at the beginning of the year, with only its core—grad students and the library staff—coming. During 4th and 6th week, when students had midterms and the weather turned cold, sales went up.

“Of course I would like to be closer to the library,” Schmink said about the fact that the shop is inaccessible from the inside of the library. “But it’s better for the Reg as an institution to be separate. Still, at Ex Libris, we’re a really laid back place. We have music playing in the background. It’s a place to relax for a few minutes and to remind people what it’s like not to study.”

Ex Libris has also expanded its visibility to campus; along with a successful three-band concert during Orientation Week, which had approximately 300-400 students attend, the coffee shop is having a date raffle for two of its counter staff, and a games night to be planned by ORSCA.

Still, Schmink said that Ex Libris was fighting an uphill battle with competition from nearby Bartlett and Hutch Commons.

“Dealing with Bartlett is difficult, but then we’re dealing with two completely different market demographics,” Schmink said. “People who stay in the library tend not to leave the library, while people who want to eat at Bartlett will do so.”

•Grounds of Being—Grounds of Being, the official name of the coffee shop located in Swift Hall basement commonly called the Div School coffee shop, attracts an eclectic group of customers: grad students, undergrads, hospital workers, ordained ministers, faculty, and staff.

Under the supervision of the Divinity School Association, a non-profit organization, the shop is likewise student-run, with graduate students and undergrads doing much of the behind-the-counter work for the shop. Michael Kraftson-Hogue, the general manager of Grounds of Being and a Div School student, was not available for comment.

Grounds of Being is especially known for a wide selection of ethnic foods from local Hyde Park vendors and other Chicago restaurants and for low prices. Since it was launched in the 1960s, Grounds of Being has prided itself on serving coffee hot and cheap. Today, prices for coffee regularly run under $1, with a regular cup of joe selling for 80 cents.

With its social atmosphere and jazz/rock playing in the background, seating at the Div School can get filled fast, especially in the actual shop, which has only a few tables. The larger outside dining room fills quickly as well, forcing many students to have lunch on the grass outside. With winter coming, that could be problematic. But students have a consolation if they brave the cold for Div School food—they can get shirts that say “Where God drinks coffee.”


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