Spending long nights in Olin overwhelmed by books and rapidly approaching deadlines is about as Wesleyan as contemplating infinity for the fun of it. Fittingly, so is coffee, each cup making the lives of the downtrodden and worn out student masses slightly easier on a daily, or twice daily, basis. Since officially beginning to offer late-night coffee and espresso last semester, the student-run Allbritton Café, Espwesso, has surpassed all expectations. Merely a pipe-dream a year ago, Espwesso has, in its first few months, become a staple amongst night owls, consistently bringing in customers new and old looking for their nightly perk.
The idea for the café was spearheaded by current Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) president Micah Feiring ’11 in the spring of 2010, and made possible by the donation of Robert Allbritton ’92, founder of the multimedia political newspaper Politico. Allbritton’s donation and the WSA funded the café’s initial capital investments in machinery and the café space. The long-term goal, however, was to make Espwesso self-sustainable, financing the café entirely through suggested student donations. After a soft opening at the end the spring 2010 semester, the café officially opened early last fall.
“Our original expectations were that it was going to be a lot of work and hopefully it would be successful,” said café manager Alex Bernson ’11. “Looking back, the semester’s been a lot, a lot, a lot of work, but it’s been ridiculously successful.”
From Espwesso’s beginnings, Bernson and business manager Sophie Levan ’12 saw their initial business estimates shattered by an outpouring of student enthusiasm.
“We projected about twenty-five customers a day,” Levan said. “We ended up with one hundred on average.”
Despite relatively minimal advertising before opening, foot traffic and donations greatly exceeded what the café management had both expected and prepared for in the early weeks.
“In the first week, we went through our entire milk shipment, which was supposed to last us the next two and a half weeks, and nearly all of our coffee,” Bernson said. “We actually had to drive out to the farm that Saturday to pick up more. We’ve been extremely successful, so it was a great kind of problem to have.”
The café opening went off without a hitch, and by the third week there was a core group of student regulars. High turnout and student participation continued through the semester, allowing Espwesso to reach its goal of economic self-sustainability much earlier than expected.
“It is truly shocking to be able to open up a food service establishment and have it be economically self-sufficient and pretty much stable three months after opening,” Bernson said.
Feiring expressed similar satisfaction and excitement with the results of the semester.
“The entire operation is donation-based and it’s really heart-warming to know that we as a community can make a thing like this work,” he said. “Something about Alex and Sophia’s coffee brings people together.”
Now financially independent and sustainable, Espwesso is managed day-to-day entirely by Bernson, Levan, and their staff of baristas. Despite being an adjunct of the WSA, Espwesso functions independently. Feiring remains on the executive team with Levan and Bernson, bridging the gap between Espwesso and the University administration. Alongside the WSA, he also helps to structure and strategize long-term goals, such as planning some cosmetic changes to be made early this semester.
“The WSA has played a very serious advising role on how to make something work in the Wesleyan setting,” Levan said. “They set us up with a really great idea.”
Feiring attests to the importance of his executive teammates in making the initial idea a reality, and making it such a campus phenomenon.
“My idea was to create a late-night student-run café,” Feiring said. “Alex and Sophia created Espwesso.”
Berson and Levan attribute the café’s surprise success to a mix of student support, a lack of late night social and caffeine choices, and, most of all, the dedication of their staff.
“I’m really happy and humbled by how enthusiastic our baristas have been,” Bernson said. “From the beginning, my goal has been to serve bomb coffee here—they really got that and were willing to put the work in. As a result, the product we put out is consistently high quality. The staff is really into it, which gets students into it.”
With the newfound success and stability of Espwesso, the staff is looking towards the spring semester with a new perspective and a new set of goals.
“Last semester was really about making this place function from the ‘we can serve coffee to lots of people’ side,” Levan said. “One of our big goals is continuing to get the community involved. This semester is going to be more about getting students to know that we’re here and getting them drawn in.”
Espwesso recently brought on an events manager to schedule and organize community events at the cafe, and seeks to continue displaying student art on its walls. Confident in Eswpesso’s functioning, Levan and Bernson see this semester as an opportunity to refine their operation process and fully establish Espwesso as a campus fixture.
“From the purely café perspective, a major goal this semester is increasing our efficiency, especially in terms of waste and environmental concerns,” Bernson said. “We’re looking at ways to cut down our cup usage and our general wastage, so that we can both continue to be financially independent and be environmentally sustainable.”
Along those lines, much of this semester will focus on the future of Espwesso. As seniors, both Bernson and Feiring will be working to leave Espwesso in strong hands after their departure, training a new manager and bringing on a new barista. Bernson attests to the importance of a smooth transition so that Espwesso becomes a campus institution with staying power and remains a valuable asset to the student community.
“I want this to still be operating in five or 10 years and I want this to be a place that students really love,” Bernson said. “I think that we’ve accomplished our core goal, and now we just need to spread it to the entire community. We’ve got to make sure everyone can really benefit from us.”