For students on campus last semester, The Brew Coffee Bar was the only place with trained baristas and steamed milk on campus. Nestled in the courtyard of the Loeb Art Museum, Vassar’s student-run coffee shop served hundreds of students. After a hiatus for winter break, The Brew has made its long-awaited comeback—this time with a roof over its tables to accommodate for the colder months.
Located in the basement of Main Building, the Old Bookstore offers just as much natural light as the Loeb’s open courtyard. The room is warmed by the sun, which floods through the massive skylights. And just like at the Loeb, art can still be admired around the corner at the James W. Palmer III Art Gallery on the first floor. The Brew’s Co-Founder and Co-General Manager Anna Guttman-McCabe ’22 noticed the similarities between the two spaces. “[The new location] allows The Brew to still have a connection to the arts as it does at the Loeb,” she said.
Along with the arts, The Brew values building a sense of community. “The new space allows for people to gather easier with access to more tables, and community is a big part of the Brew,” explained Guttman-McCabe. According to Guttman-McCabe, the Old Bookstore compliments the coffee shop vibe: perfect for catching up with a friend or last-minute studying and just steps away from most academic buildings.
From the business end of things, the Old Bookstore’s central location allows for more customer access. “[The Old Bookstore] receives a lot of traffic from students, and we are able to be in a more central location and indoors, which helps everyone stay out of the cold. I think the new location also has more space for students to spread out and study, so more students can stay longer at The Brew,” noted Guttman-McCabe.
But it hasn’t exactly been smooth rolling for the coffee shop on wheels. As a student-run business born out of the pandemic, The Brew is used to facing supply chain shortages, vending complications and staffing concerns—challenges that follow them to the Old Bookstore. “Supply chain issues have been really hard, especially since we’re competing with larger coffee shops,” explained Co-Founder and Co-General Manager Xan Wolstenholme-Britt ’22. “There just wasn’t a lot of inventory to buy, and then what was available was two or three times more expensive than what we had been paying previously.”
Expense is something The Brew takes seriously. Keeping prices affordable––by not charging extra for alternative milks and syrups, for example––is a part of what sets The Brew apart from its competitors such as Crafted Kup, Wolstenholme-Britt said. “We prioritize being accessible.” So when supply delays sent shock waves across all food service sectors, The Brew had to make the decision that many of its competitors didn’t: keep prices the same at the risk of profits.
Thanks to The Brew’s business model, money doesn’t have to be a priority. “Our primary goal has never been to maximize profit,” explained Wolstenholme-Britt. “As long as we are breaking even and making enough money for necessary repairs, etc. we’re good. Especially since we have such little overhead (our jobs are paid through work study) it has allowed us to keep our prices the same while other coffee shops that emphasize the bottom line have raised theirs.”
Wolstenholme-Britt credited the school community and administration with making The Brew’s relocation successful. In particular, they noted the encouragement of the Campus Activities Office, as well as the cooperation of Express and Retreat staff.
“We are so lucky to have Michelle Ransom’s support,” said Wolstenholme-Britt of the Campus Activities Director. “Additionally, the support of the Loeb and other campus administrators, as well as the VSA (who provided the initial funding) allowed us to get the project off the ground,” he continued.
This semester, to accommodate cold drink demand, the business has worked with Express to use their ice machines: a small reminder of collaboration between students and staff.
Even though the Old Bookstore comes with its own benefits and quirks, employees of The Brew hope to someday return to their beloved Sculpture Garden. “We definitely do miss our spot at the Loeb because the space is so gorgeous, and we love encouraging the community to view the amazing works they have there,” said Co-Assistant General Manager Adrianna Guarino ’24.
Looking to the future, Guttman-McCabe and Wolstenholme-Britt will graduate in May, leaving The Brew to the next generation of determined baristas. Guarino and Eliza Schiff ’23 will be the general managers of the business next semester. I asked Guarino about her experience working for The Brew and stepping into a management position. “I started with The Brew as a freshman at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic; at the time, many clubs and athletic teams couldn’t run, and social events were stifled,” she explained.
For Guarino, The Brew was more than just a campus job. “My shifts as a barista helped me meet more of our amazing Vassar community during the pandemic than any other organization I was involved with. It was so refreshing to greet and have conversations with people when everything was shut down,”she elaborated.
Guarino was excited about the chance to connect with the Vassar community even through quarantine—a connection she hopes to continue to make with The Brew community for years to come.
When I spoke to barista Addison Moore ’25, she expressed similar sentiments.“Our team is great—we all really get along and I’ve definitely made a lot of friendships with not only my co-workers but also customers,” she shared.
Co-founders and future general managers alike are optimistic for the next chapter of their caffeinated family. Their endurance is something that The Brew hopes to maintain, even as student-run coffee shops of Vassar’s past have failed.
With affordable prices, familiar and friendly faces on staff and the new location in Main, The Brew has something special to offer. So whether the business’ future is lit by sunlight in the sculpture garden or through skylights in the Old Bookstore, it is sure to be bright.