• Learning Leadership

    Student-Run Cafés Help Students Build Management Skills, Friendships

By Anne Hartman Raether

John Rudnik’s passion for the food and beverage industry was sparked during Sunday dinners with his grandma, whose traditional Italian fare demonstrated how food and drink can bring people together. As a UChicago student, Rudnik couldn’t swing a demanding restaurant job downtown, so he opted instead to pursue his interests while working at eX Libris Café, a student-run coffee shop in the Regenstein Library. After two years on the job, Rudnik, a fourth-year, has risen the ranks to become the café’s general manager.

There are five student-run coffee shops on campus: Cobb Coffee Shop, Harper Café, Hallowed Grounds, Harris Café, and eX Libris. The tales vary on how UChicago’s student-run coffee shops got their start, but most agree that Cobb was the first, launching in the basement of Cobb Lecture Hall in the 1960s with a simple coffee maker and an assortment of donuts.

About 100-125 UChicago students staff these shops, with each café employing a general manager and two assistant managers. Dave McEvers, Campus Business and Operations Manager in the Center for Leadership and Involvement, coordinates the coffee shops and advises mangers, but students take on the bulk of the work, including staffing, scheduling, ordering, invoicing, and, of course, brewing and serving coffee. With much of the responsibilities falling to the student staff, the benefits of working in the cafés go beyond a paycheck, McEvers said.

“For us, it’s not just about coffee,” he said. “It’s about learning about human interaction in the workplace and developing problem-solving and leadership skills.”

Staff at the shops are encouraged to participate in leadership programs through the Center for Leadership and Involvement, such as the StrengthsQuest Assessment to pinpoint and grow their personal strengths. Dark Matter Coffee, which supplies coffee for the shops, has also provided training for the staff.

Rudnik, for one, has seen his communications and delegation skills improve since assuming the general manager position.

“The role has helped me mature tremendously, way beyond what you can learn in a class,” Rudnik said. “I’ve had experiences that you can’t train people for, and I’ve learned how to communicate effectively with not only staff but also my superiors and our vendors.”

Students are also encouraged to use their creative skills in the workplace. This often comes in the form of concocting unique drinks for customers—staff at Harper Café, for instance, created a coffee mojito and banana bread–flavored drink, while students at eX Libris served chili-spiced mocha and honey apple cider drinks to warm up customers during the fall season.

Through working in the coffee shops, staff form friendships and join a support network, McEvers said. Staff often gather for potlucks, game nights, and kickball leagues outside of work. They even dress in formal wear for the Cobb Prom—complete with a disco ball and prom king and queen.

“Shortly after getting to school, I realized that these shops are a culturally embedded thing at UChicago,” said Zoey Twyford, a third-year who works at Harper Café. “It became a way for me to make friends and an outlet for becoming part of the UChicago culture.”

“It goes way beyond a job,” Rudnik added. “So many of the friends I’ve made and met have been through the shops. Working in these shops has really come to characterize a lot of people’s lives.”

For Rudnik, the experience has also provided clarity on his post-graduation goals.

“I definitely want to stay in the food and beverage industry, and this job has helped me decide that,” he said. “It’s sort of amazing that the shops run as smoothly as they do, given how committed everyone is to academics. It’s really gratifying to see.”