Anna Guttman-McCabe ’22 and Xan Wolstenholme-Britt ’22 were both baristas in high school. As we talked, one of the first things I noticed was their enthusiasm for beans and milk and, above all, the socializing effects of espresso.
Guttman-McCabe and Wolstenholme-Britt had been tossing around the idea of a student-run campus coffee bar for a while now. I sat with them in the Sculpture Garden adjacent to the Loeb—this is where they plan to set up the bar, which they’ve christened, to my delight, The Vassar Brew Coffee Bar. We found a table, crossed our legs and shielded our eyes from the sun, and I imagined cradling a coffee between my palms. Wolstenholme-Britt related the origin story of the Vassar Brew (“the Brew” for short). He pointed to the roofed patio space on the side of the museum building, miming the moment of inspiration: “I asked, ‘Wait, Anna, how cool would it be if there was a coffee shop out here?’” He walked over to the little alcove and continued, “And we talked over here saying, ‘What if this was here?’ and ‘What if this was here?’ And I was like, ‘Wait, are you joking?’ And she was like, ‘No, I’m serious,’ and I was like, ‘Me too.’” He repeated this last phrase with dead seriousness and an air of finality.
The idea was not unprecedented. Wellesley College, for example, has two student-run coffee shops, and Vassar has its own rich history of student- and independently-run coffee retail. From 1974 to 1986, Noyes House’s multipurpose room was known as the Epicurean East Coffeehouse, then as the West End Coffeehouse, a nonprofit that also served as an entertainment venue. After some investigation, Gutman-McCabe and Wolstenholme-Britt encountered a roughly 30-year timeline up to the present: Decades ago, there was a Vassar dining-affiliated coffee stand, and later a coffee window where Express is and even one at Walker Field House with an espresso maker. Then came a coffee cart run by two alums that offered pour-overs from various locations on campus, which functioned essentially as an independent contractor. Around 2011, an independently-run student cart briefly set up shop in the library and Main Building. And, of course, there was the mythic Matthew’s Bean, which now lies dormant in the library basement. According to Library Director’s Office Assistant Amanda Burdine, it closed in 2018 due to lack of traffic, and is currently a furniture storage unit.
Burdine stated in an email correspondence with Guttman-McCabe, “[The Bean] was hard to staff, since it relied on student employment. It would inevitably close during study week and finals, which was exactly when students wanted it to open.” She also cited its less-than-appealing design: “They painted it yellow and it had ceiling lights and small spot lights, so it always felt dark and dreary in there.”
The Bean’s fatal flaw—student staffing—would become the jumping-off point for the Brew. Similarly, the alum cart had to close because they ran into staffing issues. One of Guttman-McCabe and Wolstenholme-Britt’s main goals are to provide work study opportunities by employing students as baristas. The latter noted that work-study employment can be hard to find right now, suggesting that there is a dearth of service jobs and positions that aren’t specific to an academic department.
In addition to enlivening work-study options, the founders want to carve out a space for inter-org relations at Vassar. They raved about the prospect of partnering with a student organization for, say, one week a month, such that all of the revenue would be directed towards the organization’s charity of choice or future events. To this end, an org could table next to the bar on partnership weeks. Wolstenholme-Britt explained, “As it stands, you’re not allowed to give money directly to another org, but we’re trying to figure out ways to have the revenue go to other things they want and give back to the Vassar community.”
Perhaps belatedly, I asked them what their inspiration was for this project. Why set up a coffee bar now, when person-to-person contact is more precarious than ever? Their motivations to start the Brew actually stemmed from the source of my concerns. Nowadays, a unified sense of campus culture is difficult to discern. Guttman-McCabe noted, “You kind of have to force a connection during these times. You have to make a plan to meet somebody and just sit on the grass outside, and there’s no seating.” In the future, the bar would serve not only as a retailer, but also as a sort of venue for student and community activity. She said, “We started to think of it not just as a coffee shop, but as a place for people to get good coffee. The pandemic has shown us that we need more ways, especially outdoors, for people to get together and have ways to connect.”
In addition to the Brew ethos, the founders have, of course, mulled over the menu. They plan to offer “the full range” of espresso drinks. Here they started running through an encyclopedic list of coffees, several of which I’d never heard of: In addition to caf and decaf options, Wolstenholme-Britt said, there would be cortados, Americanos, lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, espresso shots, mochas and then Chai, caramel and vanilla syrup drinks and loose-leaf teas. While drip coffee is not in the plan, they are thinking of selling by French press (as opposed to espresso). They affirmed that everything would be V-Card accessible (and possibly purchasable using Popup Bucks).
The base principle of the Brew’s beverage service is recycling. The founders have been looking at precedents for student-sold coffee, sourcing old equipment and circulating funds. Currently, they are trying to track the espresso machine that was used at the old coffee window. “[With espresso, y]ou don’t have to buy a lot of new equipment,” Guttman-McCabe explained. “And the profit that we do hold onto would be put into a fund to save up for the equipment necessary to provide what the community wants. If they want smoothies, we would buy a blender, and buy fresh produce for that weekly.”
As we delved deeper into their proposal, they only got more expressive—mime-tamping coffee, illustrating the ideal dimensions of the bar, pointing out a conveniently placed extension cord and even walking me through the garden to elaborate on seating. The Sculpture Garden, they said, is a good spot for club tabling as well as acapella concerts, standup, small plays, karaoke night, dance lessons, ballroom dancing night, early morning yoga on Sunday—all paired with brew. They expressed hopes of one day opening the garden gate to the street so that Poughkeepsie community members may visit.
Wolstenholme-Britt pointed out an interesting paradox. As social exchanges have been pushed outside, the dynamics of campus culture are more readily visible: take a glimpse of Noyes Circle at meal times and you will see a good chunk of the student body in various modes of exchange. But because of this, the lack of a “campus hub,” as the founders put it, is only pronounced. It seems that students have caught onto this decentralizing effect. A Brew interest survey that was sent to the student body has, as of now, received 363 positive responses. Over 150 of these students expressed that they would like to help institute the bar. Wolstenholme-Britt shared, “Not only is it going to be a collaborative space once it’s up and running, we really see this as a collaborative effort to build and create so that students are invested in it from the beginning.”
Longings for caffeine and camaraderie abound at Vassar. The Brew hopes for a solution.
Guttman-McCabe and Wolstenholme-Britt have pitched the idea to the Loeb Student Advisory Board and Campus Activities and were met with good reception. The Brew has also been approved as a full org by the VSA. For inquiries, reach out to email@example.com.