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College administrators temporarily close Bob’s and Lyle’s

Open mic at Bob’s Underground Cafe, Spring 2017. Contributed.

By Lily Bohlke

Bob’s Underground Cafe and Lyle’s Pub, two formerly student-run businesses, will close operations for the 2017-2018 academic year. Bob’s Underground will be available for reservations and Gardner events. Lyle’s Pub, however, due to liability issues surrounding liquor licenses, will not be accessible to students at any time.   

In past years, both Bob’s Underground and Lyle’s Pub have been important spaces to the college community. Bob’s Underground is a substance-free space while Lyle’s Pub serves as a location for responsible drinking. Both student spaces are seen by administrators and the businesses themselves as positive and essential to Grinnell’s culture.   

“Lyle’s is one of the only spaces on campus that’s meant for responsible drinking,” said Anna Schierenbeck ’18, one of Lyle’s intended co-managers. “Everywhere else you go, as much as we preach harm reduction, is a space for binge drinking, or a space that promotes binge drinking.” 

“[Bob’s] is valued as a student space, and it’s valued as a sub-free space to hang out and have a real event where alcohol isn’t being served,” said Andrea Conner, vice president of student affairs. 

Over each summer, Conner and other staff departments review the business practices of both Bob’s Underground and Lyle’s Pub. This summer a meeting was held among administrators, human resources, payroll, dining services and student activities, among other faculty with advisory roles.   

“The consensus at that meeting was that this has been worrisome for so long that it was time to take some action in the hopes of building something sustainable for the future,” Conner said.   

Conner, as well as other faculty involved, felt that although they might have liked to keep Bob’s and Lyle’s open this year, it was decidedly not an option. 

“Folks are worried that this is permanent, or that somehow the College has a vested interest in closing them for good,” Conner said. “All of the conversations about this have been, how can we make this work?”

John Gallagher ’17, Mollie Jo Blahunka ’17 and Aaron Weerasinghe ’17 were integral student employees at Lyle’s. Contributed.

In the past, departments including the ones present at this summer’s meeting have supported and advised student leaders and staff at both businesses in an effort to address Lyle’s and Bob’s operational issues, but rapid change in leadership has often been an obstacle, according to Conner.   

“We felt like we’d tried that before. That’s a valid strategy — let’s try to make this space available and accessible, and chip away and make little improvements here and there,” Conner said. “One thing is that, just like with any student organization, leadership change happens almost every year. We needed something a little more radical so that it can succeed in the long term.”   

On the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 4, the managers of both Bob’s Underground and Lyle’s Pub were informed via email that their operations would not be opening at the start of the school year. According to Schierenbeck, the College did not provide a contingency plan for informing and accommodating the students who had planned to be employees.   

  “It’s really difficult to find a job that is flexible, in the evening, and at the $9.50 pay grade,” Schierenbeck said. 

Last semester, before the announcement that Bob’s and Lyle’s would suspend operations, the intended co-managers of Lyle’s Pub had weekly meetings with administrators Jen Jacobson, assistant dean of students, and Adam Gilbert, residence life coordinator, to come up with a new business plan to shore up Lyle’s finances. 

“We had put in a ton of work. We revamped our hiring practices, we revamped our inventory practices and an hour a week is a lot of work. It’s a lot of money taken out of Lyle’s payroll,” Schierenbeck said. “We had designed a training to be administered at the beginning of the year for managers, one for new employees and a refresher for old employees, so we were really working on consistency.” 

Bob’s Underground has not gotten the same kind of institutional support in recent years, however. Although Bob’s staff had been working hard to resolve financial issues from past years on their own, intended Bob’s managers Anne Rogers ’19, Judith Tong ’20 and Paige Oamek ’20 all said that they would definitely have been willing to work with the administration to make improvements if it had reached out to them.    

“We’re full-time students, so it’s hard for us to go out and figure every detail and every person we should contact,” Rogers said.   

“We’re expected to rewrite these business proposals, which we’d be willing to do with assistance,” Oamek added.   

The College is making a call for new business proposals, according to Conner and Student Government Association (SGA) President Summer White. These could take numerous different forms, including plans that combine Bob’s Underground Cafe and Lyle’s Pub, run the businesses more like student organizations or apply for funding from the Wilson Center for Innovation.   

However, some students feel that there were problems with the way the closures were carried out. There were no students involved in the decision-making process, and the student leaders had already put in time and energy hiring staffs and making other preparations for the year.   

“Hiring took a long time. We had more than 40 applications and we read them all,” Rogers said. 

“[We] had informed them, and they had all accepted to work there,” Oamek added.   

Student input is an important aspect of many of the College’s decisions, and surrounding these discussions, many students wonder why none of their peers were included.   

“I would say that it’s not outside the scope of SGA at all,” White said. “I think in a shared governing community I understand that there are some issues that need to remain in the professional staff’s hands. I wouldn’t classify this decision as something that students needed to be excluded from. This is an example of [a decision] that would have highly benefited from having student input and I see SGA as a key stakeholder in this decision-making process.” 

However, after the initial decision was made, the administration brought in SGA and has been working closely with them ever since. 

“SGA is on board with acknowledging the need to revise business protocol, and are excited about Student Affairs’ willingness to have [Bob’s Underground] open for student events,” White said. “We have been included in conversations every step of the way afterward, and those have been really good.” 

In addition, the intended managers are now being asked to compete with other students for jobs which they possess experience and ideas about. Rogers stressed the importance of maintaining the culture of Bob’s Underground, which she believed to be vital to the campus community.   

“We feel it’s a little unfair and disrespectful to us to open up a Wilson Center proposal [call] because we have been a part of this organization, all of us for at least a year, and we think it’s weird to have new proposals for a space that has been integral to campus for so long,” Rogers said.   

As fourth-year students with just one year until graduation, the co-managers of Lyle’s will not have a chance to propose how to run their business operations in the future.   

“We will work with our younger staff to try and preserve the culture, but I am very frustrated with the fact they’re not guaranteed a placement in this, because some of them have been working at Lyle’s since their first semester first year, and know the ins and outs of the place and would have been great managers had they been allowed to be,” Schierenbeck said.   

Managers of both businesses also felt that they had been making numerous improvements towards financial progress. The co-managers of Bob’s had all come in at the end of last year as new managers ready to work through business problems and collaborate with the administration.   

“We would like more support, but we weren’t really sure where to look for it and it wasn’t offered,” Rogers said. “So then it was a surprise when this was shut down because we didn’t have that dialogue and discourse going,” Oamek added.   

Moving forward, the managers of Bob’s are optimistic about reopening the business operations. Conner said she intends to make sure that they reopen, even without student proposals.   

“I don’t want to gloss over the fact that there will be some jostling going on for some events,” Conner said.   

For the time being, some important traditions will remain. Pub Quiz, according to Schierenbeck, will be relocated to Bob’s, for which the Pub Quiz leaders will go through the new process to reserve.   

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