Rain Or Shine, Students Show Up for Free Food

Photos by Andrew Oh/Guardian

After years of financial strife, the newly renovated Grove Cafe opened its doors again last week, offering free lunch to over 2,200 UCSD students in an attempt to recruit future business for the struggling cafe.

The Grove, an A.S. enterprise, hosted a four-day free lunch event that took place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Despite the drizzly weather, thousands of students waited in line to receive a free sandwich or personal pizza.

According to Vice President of Finances and Resources Peter Benesch, an estimated $6,000 was spent on the promotion event, including ingredients and advertising.

Associate Vice President of Enterprise Operations Rishi Ghosh called the kickoff a “smashing success.”

“We have captured a huge chunk of campus awareness about the Grove, and that has been our main goal,” Ghosh said.

The Grove opened in 1986 as part of the Crafts Center — run by director Ron Carlson — and used its status as the only coffee shop on campus to keep students coming back.

In 1993, however, the Student Center venue began losing business to the brand-new Price Center, sinking the cafe into debt and forcing Carlson to sell his 50-percent share to the A.S. Council in 2007.

When profits continued to drop under student management, the council decided to hire a professional manager for $50,000 a year.

Benesch said this decision was the main contributor to the Grove’s current $140,000 debt.

“The only reason the Grove was bleeding money the last two years was because of the manager’s salary,” Benesch said. “We could not support a $50,000-a-year position. It was a poor, poor decision on A.S. Council’s part.”

The Grove’s debt is borrowed from the university, and does not currently affect the A.S. Enterprise budget.

“Technically, if the Grove kept a steady level of debt indefinitely, it would be more advantageous to keep it open,” Benesch said. “If the Grove was closed, the debt would have to be paid off. It makes sense to break even. We would accept it, but ideally we want profitability.”

A.S. President Utsav Gupta made “saving” the Grove a main point of his platform during the election season last year. When Gupta began his term, he removed the professional manager, aiming to revert to a more student-oriented business model.

“The previous administration didn’t put focus on the Grove,” Gupta said. “Instead of taking responsibility for the debt, they were blaming the responsibility on the Grove, and tried to remove it.”

The latest changes to the cafe include a simplified menu — offering simple, easy foods like sandwiches and breakfast items — with the intention of becoming the most affordable eatery on campus. Everything on the menu sells for under $5, and coffee is $1, one of the cheapest prices on campus.

“I’m trying to cut costs to make the food more accessible, so undergraduate students will come to the Grove,” Grove Student Manager Thomas Frank said. “While it is great to have graduate students, researchers and professors coming to the Grove, it’s stupid to not target the students that are on this campus each day.”

Last quarter, the Grove was partially closed for renovations such as repainting, installing black tile floors, creating new menus and purchasing a $3,700 convection toaster oven. University Centers also paid to redo the deck and add more lighting.

“With internal and external reforms, we can make the Grove profitable right now,” Ghosh said. “I think realistically, within the next two years, the Grove can have its debt paid off.”

If the Grove goes further into debt, University Centers has the authority to terminate the Grove’s lease, forcing its $140,000 debt to be paid off.

Eleanor Roosevelt College freshman Audris Fan, who attended the grand reopening, said she waited 40 minutes for a free personal pizza.

“The bites I had were pretty good, but I felt like it’s not worth it to return to the Grove,” Fan said.

Sixth College senior Leena Barakat said she frequented the Grove before the changes, but approves of the renovations.

“Their food is actually one of the best foods I’ve had on campus,” Barakat said. “It’s in a nice location, and the prices are really good. I will come back for sure.”

Readers can contact Serena Lee at [email protected].

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