The new student-run café will take the place of previous SSMU tenant Lola Rosa Xpress. (Photo by Wendy Chen, graphic by Alessandra Hechanova)

Student-run café to open Jan. 6 in SSMU cafeteria

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A student-run café is set to open on Jan. 6, 2014 in the SSMU Building, according to an announcement last Friday by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU).

The location of the student-run café will be in the second floor cafeteria of the building. The space was previously occupied by Lola Rosa Xpress, which chose not to renew their sublease this year. The location remains equipped with the utilities required to run the café.

The announcement followed the McGill administration’s recent approval of SSMU’s proposed use of the space on the morning of Friday, Oct. 25, which is a requirement for all usage of room in the SSMU Building. SSMU President Katie Larson said that the announcement had been delayed due to various factors.

“There was confusion about whether the former Deputy Provost (Student Living and Learning) had given explicit consent to the project,” Larson said. “So [we] decided that before we advertised the project publicly we would need to get a new written approval so McGill was not surprised.”

The café will be staffed by students and financially managed in a manner similar to that of other SSMU operations, such as Gerts Bar and Mini-Courses. According to Larson, its day-to-day operations will be organized by a coordinator of the café, who will also work on a budget with SSMU Vice-President Finance and Operations Tyler Hofmeister. Actual financial management will be performed by SSMU’s accounting department.

“As for actually accounting, bookkeeping, all those professional services, we would have them in-house already,” Larson said. “So we are able to use them to support [the operation].”

Hofmeister said that the café is not expected to raise revenue.

“SSMU is a non-profit organization [and] as such, we attempt to run all operations at a break even basis,” he said.  “To be clear, the café is aiming to make revenue it’s first year—enough to offset the associated expenses with operations in this year.”

The announcement follows nearly three years of discussion within SSMU, which began in Fall 2010 when McGill shut down the student-run Architecture Café due to alleged financial instability. The closure prompted protests by students and led SSMU to endorse a boycott of McGill Food and Dining Services (MFDS), as well as the suggestion of establishing a similarly run café in the SSMU Building.

Former SSMU president and current manager of the café Josh Redel said that in addition to providing jobs for students, the café will serve as a building block for related student initiatives, such as projects on sustainability and catering.

“At the start, we’re looking at some very interesting plating options and compostable materials and such but we’d very much love for a group of students to look into creative ways of doing takeout [and] looking into the plating issue in the cafeteria,” Redel said. “We hope that the [café] will be like a framework for students to be able to do projects like that, so that they have real life experience.”

According to Redel, the café will be inspired by ideas brought up during the Sustainability Case Competition held in March 2012, an event where teams of students developed designs focused on economic and environmental sustainability. Although the competition advertised that the winning team’s design would be implemented, Larson said this is no longer possible given the circumstances of the café.

“They ran the competition without having a concrete way to implement [the winning idea],” Larson said. “It was miscommunicated in that way [….] which is unfortunate, because with great ideas, you don’t want to push people away with miscommunication.”

Andrew Wu, one of the four members of the winning team and a current U3 Arts and Science student, said that the current SSMU proposal is very different from the café design his team developed.

“During the competition, the stated goal was to create a socially inclusive café that was both environmentally and financially sustainable; all participants in the competition firmly believed in this goal, which is why there was such a high level of commitment towards the project,” Wu said.

“While much is still unknown about the student-run café, it’s somewhat disheartening to see that the vision is no longer what it used to be,” he added. “That said, I am still optimistic that the student-run café can preserve the elements of sustainability that the cafe proposal was all about.”

Redel noted that the designs would continue to serve as inspiration for the café.

“We’re using a lot of information from all the teams to start,” Redel said. “If we use any of their research, they will be credited for it for sure.”

Leading up to the official opening, SSMU will run a campaign to raise awareness of the café, engage students in its operation, and provide feedback regarding what students envision for the café. The campaign includes a naming contest, which will be determined through a student-wide vote through social media.

Redel stressed the importance of this student initiative.

“To be able have a space like that on a campus in downtown Montreal is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I really hope people understand the impact of that,” Redel said. “I hope people get out and get engaged. It’s not just about consultation, it’s about being deeply integrated into how the café functions.”