University of Virginia's Alderman Café Earns High Marks from Faculty, Students, and Customer SurveyBy Anne Lawrence and Melissa Norris
When patrons first enter Alderman Library at the University of Virginia they are greeted by vaulted ceilings, chandeliers, an impressive Roman numeral clock, the smell of coffee brewing and the whirl of a cappuccino machine. Soon after opening in September 1998, the Alderman Café, located in the Library's Memorial Hall, quickly became a popular meeting place for students, faculty, and staff. The café recently placed second out of 512 college and university dining facilities serviced by ARAMARK, Inc., a national food service provider. This impressive ranking, the result of a spring customer satisfaction survey, improves upon the fifth place ranking the café received in the fall survey.
Café Supervisor Diane McLellan attributes the shop's success to the relaxed attitude of its patrons. "It doesn't matter whether someone's an undergraduate student, a tenured professor, or the Dean of Students. In here, they're a 'tall latte,' an 'iced chai,' or a 'grande mocha,'" she said. "The laid back atmosphere really helps to break down barriers."
Providing "common grounds" where faculty and students can get together is one of the main objectives of the Alderman Café. According to Deputy University Librarian Kendon Stubbs, members of the Faculty Senate noticed the popularity of on-campus coffeehouses at other institutions and were eager to bring the concept home to UVa. "I thought it odd that our University, centered around the concept of the Academical Village, should have been so deficient in this regard. The ongoing exchange of ideas inside and beyond the classroom is precisely what UVa. strives to foster," said former Faculty Senate Chairman Jahan Ramazani, another proponent of the café.
While members of the Faculty Senate saw the coffee shop as a means to enrich UVa.'s intellectual community, members of the Library's Student Advisory Committee and Library Fees Committee focused on other benefits such as increasing patron comfort and generating revenue. Reference and Information Services Director Linda Lester said that students had been asking the Library to make food and beverages available for a long time; "It's much more pleasant to study when you can sip a cup of coffee without having to worry that the 'food police' are going to come get you. I think that's why bookstores with similar cafés have become so popular," Lester added; "they work hard to make you feel at home."
The Library Fees Committee acknowledged the success of area coffee shops and hoped that establishing a similarly relaxed, congenial environment in Alderman's main hall would attract more students and heighten attention to the Library. The café's popularity has succeeded in increasing Library patronage, and the Library will also benefit from a renovation of Memorial Hall scheduled to take place this fall. Renovation plans include the addition of more tables and chairs to accommodate an ever-growing number of café patrons, as well as additional computer stations and lounge furniture for the other Library users.
Lester was quick to add, however, that this expansion "does not mean we're becoming the University of Virginia Alderman Café and Library." While the café will maintain the seating area, the renovations are concurrent with the Library's goal of providing comfortable study facilities for its patrons. "We used to have several large tables in Memorial Hall where people could read or work on group projects, but those had to go when we put in the coffee shop," she remarked. "Now we're simply relocating a few offices to give the students that space back."
In the spring of 1998 plans to establish the Alderman Café became a group effort. By late February, members of the Library Student Advisory Committee, the Library Fees Committee, and the Faculty Senate had consulted with Director of University Dining Services Ed Gutauskas about the pros, cons, and logistics of opening a coffee shop in the Library. "Ed thought it would be a good idea to put us in touch with one another," said Library Communications and Publications Department Director Ken Jensen. "We each brought a different perspective to the project."
The united efforts of students, Library officials, and the Faculty Senate enabled the Alderman Café to be established in just a few months, illustrating the potential success of faculty-student collaboration. In this way, it could be said that the coffee shop has already fulfilled its mission of bringing faculty and students together. "[The opening of the café] is a wonderful example of how the University can work together perfectly," said Faculty Senate Chairman-elect David Gies, former President of the Senate's Research and Scholarship Committee. "The University identified a need and met it in a very elegant way."
Faculty Senate members and University Library officials believed locating the coffee shop in an academic setting would foster interaction and contribute to the growth of an intellectual community at UVa. "The Alderman Café has become even more of a success than we had thought possible," said Faculty Senate Chairman Ed Ayers. "To see it busy all day long with students and professors and librarians talking with one another is very gratifying." McLellan concurred, remarking that; "students often come here to meet with study groups or to talk to professors. I can tell they're doing work because of the books they leave behind." Humorously, Ayers remarked, "I'd like to think that the additional caffeine has increased the productivity of the Library patrons!"
Third year student John Duval said that he usually stops by the café in between classes. "I would probably not come [to Alderman Library] otherwise, but because of the café, I think it's a great place to relax and catch up on reading." First year student Kara Hurston takes advantage of the opportunity to meet with her instructors in a neutral setting. "It's a lot less intimidating to come up to professors here rather than after class. They seem like regular people and have more time to answer my questions."
The café once again proved its popularity among students during final exams week when 1,134 customers patronized the shop in one day. On a more typical day, the café averages 600 customers.
McLellan's advice to anyone considering a similar venture is simply to be prepared for success. "This really is the students' café. They've made it what it is today and will ensure its successful future."
The Alderman Café is open weekdays during the school year from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m, and again from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m. The café extends its hours during exams, remaining open until midnight. To accommodate summer patrons and visitors to the Library, the café is open June through August, Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.Melissa Norris is Public Relations Specialist for Alderman Library of the University of Virginia.
Anne Lawrence was an intern for the Communications and Publications Department and has since completed her degree.