The Bistro asks for bucks; needs more community support
The Bistro, Willamette’s student owned and operated cafe, founded in 1985 by students for students, is facing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic and decreased foot traffic. At the Associated Students of Willamette (ASWU) meeting on March 31, The Bistro asked for a $19,601 grant request from ASWU in order to break even, pulling the rest of the money out of their savings account, which currently holds $19,174. Currently, The Bistro has projected a $38,775 deficit for 2022.
In 2020, The Bistro [received a grant] from ASWU for $18,000 in anticipation of financial problems to come due to the pandemic, to which those funds were applied that year. That functioned in the same way The Bistro is hoping this new grant will in that they were able to pull the rest of the money needed for their savings account in order to break even.
Audrey Piacsek (‘22) is the financial manager at The Bistro. Pre-COVID, Piacsek said “the Bistro was able to make a profit or at least break even every year, at least as far back as [advisor] Lisa Holliday has been with us, so for at least 20 years. She has never known us to be in a deficit before.” When the pandemic began, hours were reduced drastically and they had to close [earlier in the semester] than normal in order to help with money loss. The Bistro has used up all the savings that they have accumulated over the years, “and now we need additional assistance to be able to open up again next year,” Piacsek said. The Bistro has had to cut back on staff to save money on labor costs, with only 22 employees as opposed to the typical 30-35, as well as raised prices for most food and drink.
Victoria Glidden (‘22), is The Bistro’s kitchen manager. Glidden says that a big part of her job this semester has been streamlining exactly what The Bistro needs food-wise. “We used to be able to be a lot more creative in the kitchen, you could just make whatever you wanted,” Glidden said. “We would make 100 cookies everyday and have cookie shifts on the weekends, which meant more hours, and with COVID we just can’t afford to do that.” The Bistro opened for business as usual when classes were still online in spring of 2021, but there was rarely anyone in the cafe to create revenue, which is how the deficit started to grow.
Glidden is also in charge of ordering products from vendors such as Spring Valley Dairy, Portland Roasting and US Foods. This year, Glidden says that almost all of the vendors The Bistro orders from have increased their prices, which in turn has made The Bistro increase their prices. “We want to be affordable for people, and we also think to ourselves, ‘would I buy that? Is that a reasonable price?’ and we’re trying to find out ways to make more food that is less expensive.” The Bistro is not a for-profit business, so any excess money left at the end of the school year is put into a savings account used for emergencies and repairs on machines.
The Bistro has met with ASWU’s current treasurer Michael Burke (‘23) to discuss ASWU’s ability to assist The Bistro in getting out of this deficit. According to Piacsek, Burke has said that ASWU does not have the amount of money that The Bistro needs to break even, “so it’s not really realistic to ask everything of them.” The Bistro has also been in communication with the University through their economic advisor, Professor Laura Taylor, who has informed them that the University is willing to split the responsibility with ASWU in the future, but negotiations are still in process.
According to Glidden, if ASWU is unable to provide the grant, the University will provide a safety net for The Bistro, but it will come in the form of interest-free debt to the University instead of a grant. This would take years to pay off, as in general, The Bistro does not make much profit because again, it is not a for-profit business.
The Bistro has attempted to get more revenue in other ways, like Open Mics, Bearcat Days and Opening Days. Piacsek said, “We’re really trying to get the next generation of students to really know The Bistro and see it as a community space as well as a really good place to go and get coffee.” As of now, there are no plans to create a fundraising campaign focused on The Bistro’s financial struggles, as it is anticipated that revenue and profits will soon go up again as things start to normalize. One of the promising factors is that enrollment is projected to go up in the fall, which will mean more foot traffic.
Some upperclass students and staff may remember a time when The Bistro was able to stay open until one in the morning. Piacsek believes that the community’s relationship with the cafe was stronger then and it was a more common occurrence for students to hang out there, whereas when The Bistro attempted to extend hours until eight or nine earlier this fall, not as many people came by as before and it became too expensive to stay open. “I would love to see it as more of a gathering place. Clubs used to meet here, I know [tenor-bass a cappella group] Headband used to meet here and some of the law school’s clubs would meet here too. I know that’s something that is important for next year's managers too, so I’m excited to see if they can bring back that community aspect.”