The Bistro reckons with post-pandemic realities
Willamette’s beloved student-run cafe is going through a self-improvement phase. Manager Max Kass (‘24) and financial manager Ash Scott (‘25) are in the middle of an outreach and programming push in an effort to put the business back on its feet.
The Bistro hasn’t turned a profit since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A combination of low traffic, inflation and Oregon’s stepwise minimum wage increases have cut into profits significantly. Bistro managers have raised prices in response over the past few years, but that hasn’t been enough to balance the budget. “I ran into people who said, ‘I’ve never been to the Bistro before and I’ve been here for two years, three years.’ It’s surprising,” Kass said.
While the Bistro has gotten financial advice from the university and is consulting with students at the business school, it is difficult for them to get actual funding from outside sources. A one-time grant of $18,000 from the Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU) kept them afloat during fall of 2020, but ASWU said they wouldn’t give the Bistro any more grants in the future. That promise was kept when the Bistro asked ASWU for $19,000 in spring 2022. ASWU could not afford to grant that much money, so ASWU’s treasurer at the time, Michael Burke (‘23), tried to set up a deal with the university to split the cost, but the university did not approve the deal.
During a normal year, the Bistro retains its net profits at the end of each semester and puts them in a special university savings account. It can use this money for improvements or save it for later. COVID wiped out the Bistro’s savings, so its account currently holds debt. Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Engagement and Leadership Lisa Holliday, who advises the Bistro, said the university is currently “floating” the Bistro’s debt. This means they can continue to go into debt without consequences. If the Bistro returns to profitability, it will need to pay off that debt as it is able. Once the debt is paid off, it can begin adding money to the account again.
Despite these hurdles, the Bistro is still open and looking to grow. “We’ve been doing how many events, the open mics and everything, just trying to get as many people in the door for as many things as we possibly can,” said Scott. “We’ve got to get back from COVID somehow. It’s just been throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what works.”
“Yeah, that’s been my motto for years,” said Kass. “Let’s go past the line of doing too much: too many promotions, too many posts, too many giveaways, too many events, and then be able to look back at the semester and say, ‘These three things worked really well to bring new customers in, to bring people from the Salem community, and these two things no one showed up to,’” he said. “We can take a look at all that and really figure out, you know, what worked and what didn’t.”
The Bistro is also trying to return to being open at night. They’ve maintained last year’s happy hours from 7 p.m. to closing. However, The Bistro used to be open until 1 a.m. before COVID. “I think the issue is that students don’t think of the Bistro as a place to hang out late at night anymore,” said Kass. “We want to reopen to those late night hours, but we also recognize that COVID kind of created an environment on campus where after a certain point, most people just go back to their dorms,” he said. “The community aspect on campus has changed so much, and we want to bring that back by hosting more late night events and seeing if people respond to being in the Bistro late at night on a more regular basis. But until we can really tell if that’s something students even want anymore, I think being open till 1 a.m. will be tough for us.”
Kass and Scott said the best way students can support the Bistro is by showing up. “Come to events, come in later at night so we stay open later,” Scott said. Both managers are optimistic that foot traffic will continue to increase as Willamette’s enrollment rebounds and students are drawn back to the Bistro for events or just to hang out.