• Collegian staff

Sales down 70 percent, the Bistro bucks its business model to meet challenging times

Updated: Nov 22

Matthew Mahoney

Staff writer

Bistro leadership, left to right: Maia Ito ('21), Kitchen Manager, Maria del Rocio Ortiz Chavarria ('21), General Manager, Bella Medina ('21), Financial Manager, . Photo by Ally Fisher.


The Bistro’s once-vibrant community has gone quiet, due in large part to its reduced hours and its empty space, which in turn was caused by the reduced physical presence of students in reaction to COVID-19. Maria del Rocio Ortiz Chavarria (‘21), the general manager of the Bistro, said that with less customers and stricter COVID-19 related protocols, the Bistro is in real financial trouble with its semester expenses increasing and income decreasing. Ortiz Chavarria said that sales have gone down 70 percent compared to regular, pre-COVID semesters.


Ortiz Chavarria cited many reasons for bad sales. The Bistro was not expecting a quieter campus atmosphere and therefore, they were not prepared for a smaller customer base. Because of this, they had to reduce their hours. They are now open Mondays to Fridays from 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m and Sundays from 2-6 p.m. They also have experienced the loss of typical income from the lack of space reservations, in-person events and catering orders. In September, they had to pay sick time for staff and throw away a lot of inventory because they were shut down for two weeks due to the wildfires.


Additionally, they haven’t accepted cash or Bistro Bucks this semester in order to limit contact. Bistro Bucks are usually bought by clubs, organizations and departments as prizes and incentives for students or staff. Because they are not accepted this semester, Bistro management has been trying to let organizations know there are similar, available options, such as physical or virtual gift cards, which are [available to the public].


Starting in November, the Bistro created deals to try to increase sales. They offered free stickers for any $5 purchase. They also partnered with the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of the Chaplains and the WU Votes committee to host a free cookie day on Election Day. They are planning on continuing efforts like these in spring since they have seen sales improve.


They are also looking more critically at every aspect of the Bistro’s business model. They are looking at when customers are in the shop making orders to decide hours. They are considering how to make the kitchen more efficient to move around in. While the food menu received little change this semester, they are looking to decrease waste and create food that the whole community can enjoy in the spring. They also want to expand their online order menu.


Also, on Nov. 12, [the Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU) passed an $18,000 grant to help the Bistro].


The Bistro will remain open until Nov. 20, despite the quiet period. Ortiz Chavarria said that because they have been physically distancing, they are not planning on closing. During the last week of classes, the Bistro is offering 20 percent off [online orders].


They will reopen on January 20, the first day of classes.


The Bistro invites clubs, organizations and departments to collaborate with them. Ortiz Chavarria said: “We’re asking for the whole community to try and support us as much as they can... This is probably the lowest the Bistro has been in a while or in my experience being here for four years. We want to make sure we still have the resources and the experience for future Bistro managers [and staff] and for them to feel prepared for when COVID is not here and transition back to [the] regular Bistro.”


The COVID-19-related changes made in the Bistro were implemented to alleviate staff concerns. The Bistro currently has about 20 staff members who prepare all of the food. They were originally going to reopen with seating under state guidelines, but management decided not to due to safety concerns. They extended the original counter to make it more convenient for staff to be six feet distanced at all times. Aside from changes due to staff concerns, Bistro staff have more tasks related to the serving and preparing of food added to their job duties, since customers are no longer allowed to self-serve. There have also been slight changes to their food menu. They have created some sweet bagel options such as their new cinnamon raisin bagels in an attempt to increase sales.


Some COVID-19 related changes have also affected expenses. The Bistro has switched to a grab-and-go model, and as a result, their expenses have soared from ordering more paper cups and plastic utensils. The Bistro has had to do more to meet new cleaning standards by regularly sanitizing their workstation and always wearing rubber gloves while preparing orders. The increased purchase of cleaning supplies such as gloves and towels have contributed to increased expenses.


Ortiz Chavarria shared how she misses the strong sense of community with staff and customers, a feeling often referred to as “Bistro love.” Ortiz Chavarria said “When we were fully open, our seating area [was open]. We had regular groups of students who would come in to have club meetings, to do homework. We would know we were part of this Bistro community.” “I feel that [community] is something we have been lacking this semester.” She cited how the Bistro space has been used to host musical performances, open mic events, and department events: “I think that’s what we’re trying to focus on next semester. How can we build community even if we’re not all in the same space.”


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