It’s a pretty well–known fact that cafes are one of the best places to hear good music, whether mainstream or alternative. Williams Cafe (Wilcaf) is no exception. You’re not alone if whenever you order a coffee at Wilcaf you find yourself bopping to whatever tune is playing on the speaker. Music is a big part of Wilcaf’s culture, so Street took a deeper look into the baristas’ choice of songs and how much of a role music really plays in their work. 

All sorts of music plays at Wilcaf. This is a result of the system they have in place. As Reece Sisto (C '18), a co–manager at Wilcaf, says, “It’s totally democratic. Whoever’s on shift gets to play. First come, first served.” 

While some people are adamant about controlling the music, others like taking the backseat and hearing what their fellow baristas have to share. Most even have various Spotify playlists for their shifts, with different playlists for different times of the day, certain weather, or how crowded the cafe is. 

Songs don’t just play the role of background noise during work. They impact the work itself. Reece says, “When it’s a rush, it’s got to be fast. It’s got to be upbeat. It’s got to make you want to move.” On the contrary, Anthony Brown–Norton (C' 20), says he prefers chill, relaxing music to concentrate on making the drinks during a rush. For the calmer times, the music choices are usually more conducive to just vibing. Maddie Andrews (C' 18), the other co–manager, notes “Sometimes I realize I’ll literally be making drinks on beat, and I’m not even musical.” 

The music isn’t just for the baristas, though. Musically perceptive coffee–drinkers have even asked for some song names and playlist details. Chloe Onbargi (C' 20), another barista, recounts multiple times when customers have come by, laptops in hand, and asked for the playlist info. She recognizes how crucial music is to a cafe environment. Remembering times in other cafes where the music has been horrible, she says that although sometimes it seems like the songs are just for those behind the counter, it’s important that “people can study and not hate the music.” 

Photo: Autumn Powell

Anthony Brown–Norton (C' 20)

Controlling the speaker in the cafe has also made the baristas more aware of the music in other cafes. Beyond that, they now know why some cafes will intentionally play bad music. Reece says, “If you’re ever in HubBub, and they want you to leave, they’ll start playing some weird experimental smooth jazz ... so they can close right at seven.” Chloe also theorizes that the Saxby’s by Drexel’s campus will sometimes play heinous music so people will leave and they won’t have to make drinks.  

The music choices also present some hilarious situations with professors, such as when trap music blasts while serving up drinks to their teachers. Situations like this mean that “making sure the music is always appropriate” is something the baristas are working on, says Andrews. Maddie also mentions that sometimes you won’t realize until it’s playing that that song you love is not totally suitable for work. “If it’s a rush” when a questionably appropriate song is playing, “then you’re SOL [shit out of luck],” says Reece. “You can’t change that song when you’re backed up by eight drinks.”    

To the 20 baristas, Wilcaf is more than just a cafe. It provides a great community as well. After going through the totally student–run application process, a select few are given the opportunity to join the cafe. Anthony recalls how comforting it was to come to Penn without knowing people and have Wilcaf help him adjust to Penn’s campus. “I don’t know what I would have done without Wilcaf coming in that first week freshman year,” he says. 

When discussing the collectivity of Wilcaf, Reece said, “Since it is as much a job as it is a community, that balance can be really difficult, but that also requires that we navigate interpersonal dynamics with a level of maturity and professionalism that, in the end, makes us a lot closer.” Music plays a role in this community and helps bring together the baristas, both inside and out of the cafe. Reece believes it’s their “main method of bonding and getting together.” 

Photo: Autumn Powell

Yeabe Fekade (C' 21)

Since about every barista is pretty into music, it’s a pretty “fundamental part of working at the cafe,” says Reece. Chloe says that it’s to the point that even if you come in not liking music, that’ll change within the first week. While each barista has their own music taste, there are some artists that everyone’s into. They love Daniel Caesar, the Weeknd, Brockhampton, SZA, The Internet, Louis the Child, Tyler the Creator, Childish Gambino, and there was even a long Dr. Dog phase. Reece hypothesizes that some of their tastes have converged to the point that the same songs have begun to show up on each of their Spotify Discover playlists. However, they make sure there’s always new music coming into the rotation. 

Taking the music beyond Williams is the next step for the group at Wilcaf. For the new Wilcaf website, there’s an in–progress idea to start posting baristas’ playlists. To get just a little taste of their music, check out some of their playlists below!