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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.”

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  • T

    TApr 6, 2011 at 9:28 am

    1) Given the cost of attending Grinnell, both when I was there and especially now, I am baffled that this is even an issue. A kid who’s shelling out a hundred thousand dollars a year to attend Grinnell (and to think I was actually lucky to have gotten two whole years for that much–a veritable steal, in retrospect!) would hardly be out of bounds in asking for the college to provide them with a small space like Bob’s that’ll toss kids a bagel here and there for a couple bucks and give them someplace to go spend time that’s not their dorm lounge or the library. I never spent much time at Bob’s myself, but I know a whole lot of other people did and really seemed to feel a fierce love for it, and relative to almost any other aspect of the Grinnell Experience(TM), Bob’s seems like a pretty easy one for the college to keep in place if it’s so inclined.

    2) Did I get this right from Sarah Black’s post–that Quad is now just sitting there boarded up? If so: that’s kind of gross, Grinnell, and really quite heartbreaking. And if you have enough money to let a rather fantastic building like that go to waste, you have enough money to keep Bob’s open.

    3) Jamie Bourdon’s point about the existence of Bob’s allowing a few Grinnellians to graduate with managerial experience is an excellent one. Loath as anyone seemed to be during my time at Grinnell to admit that eventually we’d need more practical, market-applicable skills than Grinnell seemed to feel like offering (lest it start to resemble the dreaded “state school” everyone was oh-so-fond of looking down on? Who knows?), it didn’t make it less true, and it’s nice to know that with Bob’s around there will be at least a few liberal arts college grads out there who won’t end up stuck stocking shelves at Borders trying to pay off their loans because their academically-impressive-yet-totally-unmarketable degree can’t get them a better job than that upon graduation.

    Disappointing all around. The struggles former managers have described here in getting the college to help them do anything to address Bob’s budget situation is not at all surprising to me, either, which is also disappointing. Maybe Grinnell can ask Iowa State to lend them a business school student or two to help them figure out how to make running a small coffeeshop work, since it doesn’t sound like their current approach is doing all that well for anyone.

  • B

    BenMar 14, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    As a parent of a recent Grinnell alum, I can attest that our visit to Bob’s “clinched the deal” in persuading us (and our son) that Grinnell was a special, terrific place and a good choice for him. With the demise of the Quad, the substitution of an impersonal center for the Mears cottage admissions office, etc., Grinnell should seek to preserve this quintessential Grinnellian resource and attraction. In terms of Grinnell’s overall budget, this is a miniscule expense.

  • G

    Gina DifinoMar 11, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Is there no way that students can be offered the opportunity of using dining dollars at Bob’s? This seems a ridiculous oversight in that many campuses have allowed even corporate restaurants to use their dining programs to support them.

  • S

    Sarah P, '88Mar 9, 2011 at 12:02 am

    Parvoneh — Great idea! I’d be in. Maybe some emails to Marci Sortor,, who is acting head of development, asking for guidance on specified gifts to get things going!

  • P

    Parvoneh Shirgir '09Mar 8, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    While I really appreciate the current management’s attempts to proceed as a self-sustaining business, I do think there should be a way for alumni to donate to Bob’s immediately. This doesn’t need to be some kind of admission that students can’t run Bob’s properly–many organizations outside and within Grinnell (including the college itself!) receive donations in order to operate. Most longstanding campus groups (debate, DAG) have alumni giving accounts, which is, I imagine, a big part of why they are longstanding.

    I’d also like to be able to donate in order to take some accountability for the services I utilized at Bob’s–services that contributed to the debt.

    As a former Bob’s employee, I not only have sentimental feelings for Bob’s as a social space, I also really appreciate Bob’s as a place of student employment. I benefitted from the opportunity to work during my time at Grinnell, and I’d like to help make sure others also have that opportunity. I expect the complimentary one-drink-per-shift policy is probably, sadly, gone by now, but I’d be happy to pay for all those spritzers and licorice-peppermint teas, too. Though wages don’t seem an unreasonable expense to me, I will do what I can to support this space because, unfortunately, it seems the administration is treating Bob’s as an expendable feature (despite the existence of plenty of other non-moneymaking service providers on campus–the libraries, info desk, mail services, health center).

    It seems unlikely that the administration could expect Bob’s to break even. There are many elements out of management’s purview, as described by others above (access to the books, limited wholesale purchasing options, restrictions on dining dollars). I don’t believe the college should expect profits from Bob’s, anyways. Bob’s serves many unique purposes on campus: it is open later than all other social study spots; Bob’s provides performance space for official [concerts] as well as for students who might not be affiliated with formal music or performance groups; it is a safe place to hang around between sets at Gardner shows and parties; it’s a Safe Space; it’s a convenient place to meet for group work, especially to accommodate off-campus students. And while I definitely encourage students to purchase beverages and snacks at Bob’s, I always really appreciated that Bob’s was a coffee shop where you were really truly welcome without having to spend a penny. (I’m tempted to get into a discussion of the imminent dining services monopoly; the horrible socioeconomic pressure we’re putting on students to not only pay for the goods they are consuming (reasonable) but also for the operating costs of a social space that’s owned and ultimately operated by the college; the nonsensical arrangement of the college as landlord and student affairs as overseer but students as ultimately the ones held accountable for the product of these terms…)

    Ultimately I believe the college should be supporting Bob’s even if it continues to accrue debt. In the overall budget, institutional support of these workers and this space would constitute a very small expense. But I also know that relying on the college to provide support for student community can be a really disappointing ordeal. Yes, students who utilize Bob’s can and will do their best to ensure that they’re not irresponsibly utilizing resources. But I’d also like to ask for someone on campus to please look into setting up an alumni giving account (my understanding is that restricted gifts that can’t be allocated properly will just be reassigned as general gifts to the college). It’s really tempting to try to do it all on your own, but the great thing about community is that it reaches far and wide and doesn’t end at commencement. Please let me send a big fat check! You can buy a tofutti and dance to Beyonce on my behalf!

  • J

    Jamie Bourdon '03Mar 8, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    As a former manager of Bob’s, I think that it’s extremely important for everyone to know that this sort of situation has arisen before, with a strikingly similar trajectory to the story presented in this article. It’s also important for everyone to know that we reached a solution that was amenable to both the administration and Bob’s management then, and I don’t see any reason that a similar solution couldn’t be reached sometime in the near future. It is also important to clear up some false or misinterpreted figures and statements that are present in some combination of this article and the statements currently coming from the administration.

    So let’s tell a story.

    During the spring semester of 2001, we received a nearly identical Diktat from the administration: “Bob’s is unprofitable, it’s not going to be open next year,” with very few details given. In the week before finals for that semester (aptly referred to as “hell week” by students at the time), and without any prior intimation or notice, the Grinnell administration had decided (or chosen to enlighten us concerning a decision) to shut down a part of student life that was all but essential to a significant part of the student body. And perhaps worse, the justification given for that decision referred only in vague terms to accounting to which the student management of Bob’s had never had access. Needless to say, the staff at the time was outraged at both the vagueness of the justification given and the suddenness of its presentation to us.

    Admittedly panicking a bit, the managers and senior staff at the time responded by collecting petition signatures in the mail room, writing letters to the S&B, and going through the needlessly arduous process of trying to actually obtain a meeting between Bob’s management and the administration. The signatures were collected, the letters were written, and after more effort than should have been necessary, I was able to actually have a few sit downs with Tom Crady, VP of Student Services. During these meetings, Tom and I were able to reach a solution that allowed Bob’s to remain open and continue to enliven student life on campus.

    Before getting to the details of our solution, I would like to correct some information that seems to be circulating concerning the actual budget numbers for Bob’s. First, I was able to actually view the physical budget reports for Bob’s from its opening through my semester as Assistant Manager, and I believe that Molly Backes ’02, the manager after me, was able to actually view these as well. To my knowledge, this marked the first (and apparently only) time that Bob’s managers were actually able to even view a summarized version of their own accounting. Second, these budgets were not as abysmal as they are being described at present. Although I obviously cannot access exact numbers now, I do remember with nearly complete certainty that Bob’s budget shortfalls began at its conception and increased from just over $2,000s (per semester) at the birth of the business to just over $10,000 for the semester before I became manager. The causes of these shortfalls were numerous, and I will address them later, but what I’d like to make clear now is that the notion that $6,000 is the least Bob’s has ever “lost” during a semester is entirely incorrect. Third, at least through my tenure as manager, budget shortfalls were not merely “covered by the administration” except insofar as Bob’s existed as a part of Dining Services, a larger department within the administration that also achieves nothing close to financial solvency when viewed as a standalone budget.

    In any case, the solution: Tom Crady, members of Bob’s staff, and I eventually reached an agreement that Bob’s offered more to students than just another Forum Grill–since supplanted by “The Grille,” it seems–and that as such, it ought to receive funding from the Student Life budget on a semester by semester basis. Although this is also a number that I cannot be entirely sure about, I recall with a fair degree of certainty that we agreed on a figure of $5,000 per semester, and that the remaining shortfalls would need to be remedied via changes in business practices. Bob’s would remain open for the next school year, and reevaluated thereafter.

    It is important for everyone to know that with the supplemental Student Life budget as well as a few logical structural changes, Bob’s achieved solvency immediately. And since it has remained open through the present, I would assume that this subsidized solvency remained intact for at least a couple semesters after I left Grinnell. Unfortunately, it seems as though the Student Life funding has since been rescinded or forgotten, and Bob’s finds itself today in a strikingly similar situation to the one we experienced in the spring of 2001.

    While my present distance from Grinnell is vast in terms of miles and years, I hope that some of my thoughts might be helpful here, to both the current Bob’s management and the administration. A small numbered list, then:

    1. Bob’s allows a few lucky Grinnell students to graduate with managerial experience, a benefit that is impossible to overstate as its matriculating managers enter the ever so frightening real world job market. As a bit of anecdotal evidence, I’m currently managing a resort restaurant entirely due to the fact that I could claim managerial experience on my resume immediately after leaving Grinnell and I have yet to encounter any graduate from any other college or university that is able to say the same. Although most Bob’s managers will probably not enter the food service industry, those that do will be at such a sizeable advantage over other candidates their age that this experience alone should be worth less than a third of the cost of one student’s tuition.

    2. Although Bob’s has undoubtedly changed since my time at Grinnell (I’ll refrain from commenting on the green walls, ahem), I would imagine that it still caters to the same sort of niche coffee shop aesthetic that can’t be achieved elsewhere on campus: small art shows; poetry readings; intimate concerts; small plays; etc. There are simply things that work better in a coffee shop atmosphere than they do elsewhere, and doing away with the only adequate setting for such things would do a great disservice to the lives of students on Grinnell’s campus.

    3. Coffee shops do not pay their baristas work-study wages in the real world. In fact, they pay their staff somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of what Bob’s staff makes. This is in part due to the fact that people tip in the proverbial real world (this is not to say that I expect Grinnellians to tip Bob’s staff–I don’t; college students are generally not the most affluent individuals out there). Moreover, most independent coffee shops do not have multiple management positions because they do not have to deal with training a new manager frequently due to staff turnover.

    4. This is perhaps a point of philosophical debate, but I don’t believe that Bob’s should charge as much for a latte as Saint’s Rest or Starbuck’s, nor should it keep hours that would be based entirely around the busiest times of the day. During my time as manager, I did not price our menu at the conventional 100-200% profit margins for the industry, nor did I set a schedule that was the most financially prudent because I believed that (hearkening back to #2 above) it was more important to the student body to offer an affordable cup of coffee at 1am for those needing a break from a Burling marathon. There may be other options on the campus now, but during my time, Bob’s filled this niche in a way that no other campus business could.

    I wish the Bob’s management the best of luck during this ordeal, and I hope that when I return for my 10 year reunion, that I will be able to venture back underneath Quad and relive some of the best memories I have of Grinnell. Anyone is welcome to contact me at jbourdon at or on plans at [bourdon] if they should so desire.

  • S

    Sarah Black '10Mar 7, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    I wasn’t the only person who was handed a free stack of pizzas at Selah last year and told “here, please take these, we brought in too much food.” The school seems fine with limitless displays of discretionary spending as long as they are publicly visible, and frequently as gawdy as possible: how about another pointless knee-high marble statue apropos of nothing in front of the dorms? can we make the swimming pool any bigger or the gym glassier? is there room for more ill-advised advertising at the Des Moines airport? The JRC speaks for its own Mid-Century-Modern-revisited interpretation of wealth without taste, as if we’d made plans to just drop the academics and convert to a nouveau riche private club sometime in the 80s and only got around to it in 2006.

    Yet when it comes to services that actually make Grinnell a livable community where students feel like adults trusted to control their own spaces, rather than something between summer campers and business conference attendees, there’s a pronounced lack of interest. Just because it isn’t a résumé/brochure-padding academic club or social justice organization with mission statement and metaphor-heavy activism week doesn’t mean it isn’t important to students’ lives. Bob’s doesn’t turn a profit, but Bob’s isn’t just a some coffee shop that happens to be underneath a dorm, it’s a venue that’s only available to members of a very specific community– you need a P card to gain access– and it shouldn’t be held to private market standards. The dorm bathrooms, writing lab, lending library, and SHIC don’t turn profit either, because they’re seen as services bundled into the package you’re buying with tuition and housing expenses. Having more than one physical space for student use that isn’t either an academic building or dormitory is hardly a lavish investment, it’s the part of the bare minimum of what one would expect to come with the very high cost of dorm life at Grinnell. Is Bob’s going to just get boarded up and turned into an object of nostalgic bitterness and failure of administrative imagination like Quad?

    Maybe we could sell one of the giant JRC LCD screens to help Bob’s out, even at the cost of slightly weakening prospective parents’ impression that students are constantly watching CNN, as if the JRC were an airport instead of part of student living space.

  • L

    LilyMar 7, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    Answers to David:

    Is Bob’s paying out more in wages than it takes in over the course of a week or month?

    Actually no. Especially this semester, Bob’s has pretty consistently been breaking even. If the slate were to have been cleared in January, the numbers would look much better. The money issues arrive with the price of the food. But even still, since this last semester, things have been doing much better. The managers plan on completely revamping the business model, but the issue is that the administration sprung the ultimatum on Bob’s, giving them no time to do this before the deadline. Hence the scrambling.

    What is the status of the inventory?How much of the ordered inventory ends up unaccounted for, and how much of it ends up sold or otherwise factored for?
    As far as I can tell; No food products are wasted. The food is bought on a weekly basis, so there is never excess. Also, this means the inventory is always fresh.

    Hope this helped.

  • E

    Eric Husted '09, former managerMar 7, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    David, I can say that I never had access to a complete set of numbers for Bob’s. And I tried to get it. I wanted to do what I could to improve financial solvency, but having to do ALL the business through the college made everything so much less efficient. I literally worked ALL semester of my manager tenure to be able to order products we wanted and not pay retail markup through Juli’s (which was always random and changing, but was always at least 55%….! but we had no other choice for ordering stuff!). I have no idea how much dining services charged us for supplies like milk, cheese, cream cheese, etc., but there has never been a completely friendly relationship between the two, in my opinion. We are competing for business from the Grille, after all. This was a huge fiasco, and no matter how hard I worked to find some transparency, the college bureaucracy was insanely slow to respond or non-responsive to my requests. We weren’t high on their priority list.

    Of course, the biggest expense is student and manager wages. As others have said, Bob’s pays the standard wage for college employees. However, at most other coffee shops, out in the real world, baristas as paid under minimum wage and earn tips. This can be OK, but in Bob’s, people generally don’t tip. Part of this is that it was the campus cash phenomenon. Part of this is that students are broke and the last honest $1.50 cup of decent coffee is pretty appealing.

    The other issue, I believe, is the managerial structure. Being an effective manager takes more than a semester to develop, and changing the manager every semester is not effective. This creates inconsistency, and if you’re trying to sling yummy lattes and cappuccinos, consistency is key. Those drinks need to be made well, and having trained staff to do it is the most important thing. But that kind of program is not really something that springs up overnight, even with dedicated and hard work. It is something that takes a while to build into the culture of the workplace. Likewise for inventory, staffing, purchasing, and maintenance systems that are effective. Finally, when there are new managers so often, there’s really nobody that knows the joint inside and out. I remember when I was working as manager, we had to get a c. $400 repair to the espresso machine because the culligan water filter (and filtered water is key to quality espresso) was turned off which allowed minerals to seep through and slowly built up in a tiny valve in the espresso machine. Nobody knew a thing about it, but the culligan guy did come, saw that, and fixed the problem. The espresso machine guy came and fixed the machine, and that was what cost all the money. But still, a big expense that (probably) came from employees (and managers) not knowing what a simple switch did in the shop.

    What is my point? I know Bob’s could be run much more efficiently than it was when I was there, but some things about it need to change if this is the goal. All managers I knew were seriously focused on running a tight ship, because the administration would nag us about finances. But still, it never seemed to be an emergency, especially because all my requests for financial transparency were met with indifference, and even dismissiveness. And then I was gone. After a semester of fairly persistent and never extreme pestering for complete financial info, I was gone, and it was up to the next manager to start his own campaign for this vital yet somehow secret information.

    What needs to change? I think…
    1. Financial info should be completely transparent. Bob’s should be subsidized to an amount. The managers should have an account which the college puts $X into each semester, and that’s it. The managers should have total control over that money, with possible oversight of a board in the college or something.
    2. The manager position should not be a semester long position. It should be longer, and potentially open ended. Students should be brought into this position as second years. This would allow the manager to learn what they’re doing. Maybe the college should finagle something so it’s a sort of apprenticeship in running a small business, and the manager could learn a lot about the ins and outs of a local business. This isn’t totally equitable, since the position would not be even a possibility for all students, but I think it would make Bob’s much more of a legit business.

    What do some other folks think of those ideas?

  • K

    Katy HarrisMar 7, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    I don’t think the one person who didn’t put their name should be less trusted because of it; you don’t know the people who graduated more recently than you by name anyway. They managed Bob’s recently and have good information. They didn’t mean anything by it. Also, if the current manager says people don’t steal food, then I trust her. I’m not at Bob’s every day anymore to say otherwise.

    The current manager and the managers before worked really hard to get it down to $6,000. My point is that certain people including myself still see Bob’s as a valuable student service akin to the forum (which closed in 2005 or 2006 btw), the Grille, study breaks, Harris parties, etc. that the college should still invest in. You seem like you don’t feel that way or are pretty indifferent.

    Let me just lastly list for the record the value of Bob’s as I see it…the opportunity to be responsible for an important service as a student, as a Safe Space on campus (increasingly important), as an intimate setting for campus musicians to perform, an important part of Grinnell tradition and history (and a way to stay connected with alums and their support), a unique place to study, bond, and to hold meetings…etc! I could go on.

    I hope more students & alums won’t be indifferent to Bob’s right now and will fight to keep it part of Grinnell.

  • D

    David Nathan '01Mar 7, 2011 at 3:01 pm


    I appreciate your response. I see that many people have very passionate feelings about Bob’s, but I do not see anything that has made me think that “shrinkage” is a not a major contributor towards Bob’s financial problems. The fact people are willing to post that this is not the case but do not want to use their names to go on the record does not fill me with faith in honesty of their statements.

    As for the Grille- I realize now that I was thinking of the Forum Grill, which may or may not still be on campus. back when I was a student (and a reporter for the S&B) the forum grill for a place you could get made to order sandwiches, soups, salads, and best of all, gigantic chocolate chip cookies they would even microwave for you and made studying through the night possible. It was run by the college and I know from my work at the S&B that it and the book store were both profit centers for the school.

    As opposed to Bob’s (or the S&B itself- I am pretty sure the S&B never made enough from advertising revenue to pay for itself.)

    it sounds like the students don’t have access to the books at Bob’s. I don’t know that they did when I was at Grinnell, from 1997-2001, but I had the impression they did, and they did the ordering as well, but this could be inaccurate.

    When I was at Grinnell, students staffed Bob’s, It seems that a student manager at Bob’s on the student end should have the ability to know based on the spending and income, where the financial problems are. Is it food spoiling? Is it the cost of electricity and cooling? (Is Bob’s responsible for these costs?) Is Bob’s paying out more in wages than it takes in over the course of a week or month? What is the status of the inventory? How much of the ordered inventory ends up unaccounted for, and how much of it ends up sold or otherwise factored for?

    These are questions I would need answers to before I am able to decide whether what the college is doing is a good idea or not. As I said, when I was at Grinnell, the nature of getting goods from staffers at Bobs or for the staffers themselves wasn’t even an open secret- it was an method of operations for some. Perhaps this has changed, and perhaps it has not.

    I have several fond memories of Bob’s from my time at Grinnell, and would hate to hear that current and future students would not be able to enjoy it as well. But $6,000-$12,000 a year (or is it per semester?) is a tremendous amount of money to not be able to account for. I think the college (and the readers of the S&B) have a right to know where that money is going. Ideally, the problems can be corrected and Bob’s can stay open.

    David Nathan

  • K

    Katy Harris '08Mar 7, 2011 at 2:01 pm


    I asked some recent alums who were student managers to respond to you about losses, but I’ll tell you what I know now as a non-manager. Bob’s managers never could get the college to give full access to the accounting for bobs, they were provided certain limited information and were expected all the while to try to stay within a certain red zone. So, the administration to my understanding was treating Bob’s as a student service by funding it through at least 2008, even though it wasn’t ever profitable. (Interesting to note that the Grille isn’t profitable either, I wonder if Lyle’s is?) I personally know a lot of managers who did everything they were capable of to make Bob’s as solvent as it could be and it looks like M.A. is doing the same right now.

    I can’t say how busy Bob’s is now compared with 2001, but when I was there (2004 – 2008), It had highs and lows depending on events, finals, mid-sems, etc., but of course there were some dead weeknights.

    Anyway, my conclusion is that nothing that drastic has changed with Bob’s; the only thing that has changed is the college’s willingness to support it.

  • E

    Ethan S.Mar 7, 2011 at 11:41 am

    David –

    I didn’t work at Bobs, so I’m only speculating, but based on the conversations I’ve been seeing on [plans]:

    1. (College-mandated) wages have increased, probably faster than the prices at Bobs.
    2. Closing Quad probably, at the margins, shifted weeknight traffic to the Grille (if you need to study/meet with someone after dinner, it’s often easier to do that in the JRC than to trudge across to South).

    I mean, shrinkage is probably a factor, although I’m choosing to trust that it’s been cracked down on, and I doubt it’s the only reason that Bob’s is perpetually in the hole.

    I don’t know that the bookstore or the Grille makes a profit. The former has the long-time benefit of being the most convenient location to buy something everyone has to purchase (textbooks, materials such as art supplies for classes), so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. The latter has a certain geographical advantage that was less the case prior to the JRC. Dining can eat its losses because of meal plans. Moreover, Unlike Bob’s, the Grille also accepts dining dollars, which (engaging in some speculative behavioral econ here) are roughly equivalent to monopoly money. Bob’s has to run on campus cash and whatever laundry money people have loaded onto their p-cards.

    I think the College should be willing to subsidize Bob’s losses up to a point for a number of reasons. Bob’s confers a number of positive externalities: It’s quieter and more comfortable than the Grille, it’s offerings are substance-free (which puts it above the pub), it’s a good venue for smaller concerts and student events. People who were more frequent Bobs-visitors can probably provide additional reasons. I know visiting Bobs was a highlight of my prospie experience, and I think other people probably feel the same way. I’m sure there are others people could mention.

  • F

    Former managerMar 7, 2011 at 11:35 am

    David, the bulk of the financial problems come from paying staff. During a regular shift it would not be uncommon for Bob’s to bring in enough to pay the baristas, but on top of that there are repairs/replacements (espresso machine, coffee grinder, water filtration system and the occasional furniture) and salaries for the managers. And every time the school raises student wage rates, Bob’s has raised them to compete. During my time at Grinnell, the new Pub was opened, which did affect Bob’s customer base, too…

  • S

    Soleil HoMar 7, 2011 at 11:18 am

    All of my college relationships began in Bob’s! Think of all the opportunities for awkward nerd love that will be missed if Bob’s closes!

  • F

    farsideoffMar 6, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    David, the Grille does not turn a profit.

  • D

    David Nathan '01Mar 6, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    Does anyone know what the nature of the losses are at Bob’s? M says that it isn’t shrinkage, and the article does not make it clear. I have no idea of what Bob’s is like today, but when I was a student at Grinnell, it was very busy. Does anyone who has access to the books know where the problems with Bob’s profits are coming from?


  • K

    Katy HarrisMar 6, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Bob’s is so important to me as a Grinnell alum. Thinking about it not being there anymore makes me feel so sad. I hope that the administration will start to think of Bob’s as the important student service it is again, and see all the value its existence brings to the Grinnell community and the students who run the place. Thanks for staying positive, Margaret and the rest of the management/events staff. Keep us informed and we will help you in any we can!

    -Katy Harris ’08, events manager in ’06 and ’07

  • M

    MMar 5, 2011 at 10:11 am

    I can assure you that under the passionate leadership of Margaret Allen, there’s no skimming on the side at Bob’s.

  • D

    David Nathan '01Mar 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    WAY back when I was a student at Grinnell, the Bobs staff was notorious for ‘taking’ items for itself and giving stuff away to friends. I don’t know if this is still the case or not, but if it is, I don’t see any reason why the administration (and the rest of the students through their tuition payment) need to subsidize this sweetheart on campus job. If the bookstore and the grill can turn a profit, why can’t bobs?