Bistro management makes tough decision to close beloved campus coffee shop
After brainstorming multiple ways to keep the Bistro’s doors open during the COVID-19 crisis, on March 23 the beloved student-run coffee shop and social hub closed for the rest of the semester. This sudden closure not just about the loss of the products and services the Bistro offers, but the loss of work for several student employees and a safe space for many community members.
Bistro’s management, including General Manager Tania Palafox (‘20), worked to adjust the coffee shop’s services and functionality as the severity of COVID-19 in Oregon and around the world became more clear. The week University President Steve Thorsett announced that classes were going online, Palafox sent an email to Bistro staff outlining extra cleaning and sanitation guidelines to ensure the safety of employees and customers. A few days later, management made the decision to reduce the Bistro’s open hours and make all orders to-go.
Palafox reported that management brainstormed ways to stay open by finding alternative ways to sell products or introducing new products, but ultimately, there was not a large enough customer pool to keep the business afloat. Since campus switched to distance learning, a large portion of students have returned home, and employees are not to be on campus unless necessary.
Palafox said: “It mainly came down to the number of people that would still be on campus. Even though we met to discuss business ideas or alternative ways to sell products that maybe we haven’t sold before that might sell better… Even if we tried all of that, it just kind of came down to there wouldn’t be enough customers.”
Palafox also reported that she wanted to keep the doors open for as long as possible in order to offer hours and pay to student employees. Bistro employees can clock sick hours in order to still earn some income for the rest of the semester. Students can use their sick hours until they are depleted.
The Bistro was open for one week after classes moved to online. The Collegian spoke to Maya Rousell (‘20) and Maggie Grogan (‘20), two baristas who worked that week. Both of them reported that business was slow, and Grogan specifically commented on noticing a drop in profits. They also both expressed that they felt safe while working, especially due to the extra cleaning and sanitation protocols that were in place, like washing hands in between every task and wiping down door handles regularly. Rousell and Grogan both emphasized that they felt management did an excellent job at making the needed decisions and communicating them to the staff.
The week before spring break is when social distancing started in earnest for Oregonians, and Rousell spoke to the importance of customer interactions during that time: “There was a lot of loneliness that week because suddenly people were kind of stuck and not really supposed to see each other. That’s when each customer interaction felt so important. Because you could tell people were just kinda dying to talk to somebody, you know, a lot of people, like regulars, who would normally just get their stuff quietly were standing there for several minutes, like kind of processing and talking to me.”
Both Rousell and Grogan are graduating seniors, and spoke to how the unexpected closing of a place they frequent both to work and relax has felt.
When talking about leaving their last shift, Rousell said, “I think that felt kind of sad and I guess just anticlimactic. I thought with the Bistro being such a significant marker of my time in college, I kind of thought that like the last week working there, or just the last shift, would feel a little bit more closed and done. Like, I would be able to say some goodbyes and celebrate.”
Grogan also noted that there are many friends and acquaintances that she interacted with mainly in the Bistro that she was not able to say goodbye to.
“The Bistro is a job, but it feels more like another essential kind of home piece that I’m figuring out how to find closure from,” said Grogan.
Grogan shared that she found a little bit of closure by writing on the chalkboard walls, “Thanks for being a home.”
Palafox reported that the management team will still be able to work some hours as they proceed with hiring new staff for the 2020-2021 school year and training incoming managers.
Maria Del Rocio Ortiz Chavarria (‘21) is currently the Bistro’s financial manager and will be the general manager next year. Due to the Bistro’s closure, the incoming management team will not be able to train in the space. Palafox said the new management usually starts their new jobs around three weeks before the semester ends, so that if they run into any problems, they have the support of the former managers to help them problem solve or answer any questions. Next year’s managers will not have that opportunity.
When asked about how they feel starting to be general manager next year without the regular training, Del Rocio Ortiz-Chavarria said, “[Tania] says a lot of the things as general manager you do learn as you’re doing the job itself. So there were a lot of things she didn’t know until she started the position.”
Del Rocia Ortiz-Chavarria later said, “In my head everything seems so stressful and I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how is going to look like.’ But it’s actually through Tania who’s like, ‘I think everything will work out.’”