Bob’s Underground Cafe may shut down

By Mariam Asaad & Nate Powell-Palm

For years, Bob’s Underground has served as an alternative hangout for students who prefer a student-run, eclectic atmosphere. However, unless Bob’s finds a way to get out of several thousand dollars’ worth of debt, the College plans to shut it down at the end of the semester.

Bob’s sunk into a budget shortfall over the past few years, averaging $12,000 in debt each year, but has usually been covered by the administration. Despite the fact that Bob’s new management and event planned caused the debt this year to reached an all-time low at roughly $6,000, it is still struggling to cover its costs associated with buying food, paying for rentals, taxes, and most significantly, student employment.

Erica Hauswald ’12, left, brings out a custom-made, cream cheese and cayenne pepper bagel to Sophie Haas ’12 in Bob’s Underground Café on Thursday night. Photo taken by Ben Brewer.

“In terms of finances for this academic year … we earned $5,240.30 but have lost $6,682.19 to student wages, and $3,851.04 to food and kitchen expenses,” said Bob’s manager Margaret Allen ’12.

Allen views this ultimatum as a wake-up call for Bobs’ management.

“This has been the kick that we needed,” she said. “Bob’s now has a marketing strategy. … We’re looking to decrease the amount of money we spend. … Our customers deserve to be enticed, and we’re willing to work to make sure that they are.”

Bobs’ staff and Allen in particular began testing new strategies to increase revenue. In the past year they’ve introduced a new and improved menu and different operating hours. They also stepped up advertising and host special events to increase traffic. Allen makes specific mention of the Grinnell Review workshop taking place this Saturday, and the “Dress Your Banana” event next Monday.

“Next Monday we’re having a Dress Your Banana event. We’re partnering with SHIC once again to give out condoms with a banana and there’s a sundae bar where you can dip your banana in fondue and coconut and nuts. It’ll be really fun,” Allen said.

Nancy Combs, Accounting, wrote in an email that while no one wants Bob’s to close, from a financial point of view it needs to start breaking even if it is to remain open.

“The issue of Bob’s losing thousands of dollars every year needed to be addressed. This was done last summer by asking the managers and the advisor to Bob’s to work to make Bob’s a solvent operation,” she said.

Since then, the College has decided to pay off Bob’s debt for the last time, allowing Bob’s to start the year with a clean slate.

“We need to change something before the end of the semester, we’re positioning ourselves for success,” Allen said. “Right now we’re formulating our own plan of response before we solicit the aid of anyone else, we’re predominantly reaching out to the student body because it is an institution for them to use as a resource.”

Dan Hirsch, RLC mentor for Bob’s and Lyle’s Pub, shares Allen’s belief that the student body can help Bob’s.

“We want [other students] to generate as much awareness and business as possible, by doing anything from stopping by and buying something to having student staff have study breaks down there” he said.

SGA is working to aid Bob’s debt. SGA Treasurer Gabe Schechter ’12 and SGA President Ben Offenberg ’11 met with Allen recently to discuss a new business model for the coffee shop.

“In the case that the manager of Bob’s comes up with a convincing new plan, SGA will seriously reconsider reducing Bob’s deficit,” Schechter said.

Students spoke passionately about the value of Bob’s to both their social lives as well as their study regiment.

“Bob’s offers a quieter, more relaxed environment than many other places on campus and offers a space to study in small groups and still be productive. In the larger venues little studying actually takes place. Plus I love the pizza bagels,” said Naomi Ramsay ’14.

Students, however, are not Bob’s only supporters. Ever since news of Bob’s uncertain future went up on [plans] many alumni have reached out to Bob’s managers and expressed their interest in its fate.

Eric Husted ’09, alum and one-time Bob’s manager spoke about Bob’s as a learning opportunity and as a service that he feels the students need to fight to protect.

“The Bob’s community is central to what I perceive Grinnell to be … students need to know that Bob’s is a service the college provides for them. This is akin to closing the library earlier or reducing the number of public computers on campus. … Don’t let the administration control this discourse” he wrote in an email. “I also think that Bob’s provides students with leadership opportunities that aren’t available elsewhere on campus. For the manager and assistant managers, at least, it’s kind of like running a business.”

With a revamped menu and event calendar, Allen remains optimistic that Bob’s will be open next year as long as students keep spending money and spending time at the coffee shop.

“We have reason to believe that people will come visit despite the cold weather, just to see this place succeed. At this point, we’re going to stay positive. We have three months to really focus on turning this place into a lucrative venture.”