At 1:10 p.m. on a Wednesday, Williams Hall is quiet. Noisy lunch dates over Magic Carpet and Lyn’s egg sandwiches have mostly subsided for the day, and you can hear keyboard clicks and wind rushing through the grey double doors. In the back corner of Williams Hall sits Williams Café, fondly known as “Wilcaf.” The line is short right now, and baristas hang around, leaning up against the counter, snacking, and scrolling through their phones while the quiet moment lasts.
The back wall of the small café is covered with photos of Wilcaf baristas together, printed–out tweets and memes, newspaper clippings, and old holiday cards. The counter displays Polaroid photos of each of the baristas smiling.
Amelia Galbraith (C ’21) clocks in at 1:15 p.m., preparing for her afternoon shift. She pops on a baseball cap, the baristas’ signature look, ties her hair back, and ditches her backpack behind the counter. The transition from student to barista is swift. She’s ready to serve coffee—lots of it. Amelia’s cheery and enthusiastic, brewing espressos like it’s her first week on the job, though she’s been with Wilcaf for almost a year.
There are rushes at predictable times of the day, when long classes end or when people need a pick–me–up in the late afternoon. Right now, friends stop by to chat with familiar faces behind the café’s counter and catch up. Pieces of conversations float through the café, as does the smell of brewing espresso.
In addition to being a food and drink destination on campus, Wilcaf has “turned into this social hub where different people meet up with each other or study together,” Amelia says. She adds that for her, it’s also become her own home base at Penn. Most other Penn students wouldn’t describe their job as their second home, but Wilcaf’s tight–knit culture has given Amelia—and many other baristas—a family in addition to a place to work.
After half an hour, shuffling feet and conversation pick up. Students drudge out of midday classes, and by the table of cream and sugar in the back of the café, two professors converse in another language, but are drowned out by the post–class rush. The fact that Williams Hall is the home of many language departments at Penn only adds to the charm: You’re just as likely to hear French or Arabic as you are to run into your freshman year hallmate.
An older woman asks Amelia what dairy–free milk options Wilcaf offers. She initially opts for almond, but settles on oat milk after Amelia notes that “it’s very trendy.”
Another customer with a cold brew asks if the café has oat milk, sheepishly adding that he doesn’t want “to be that guy.” Pulling a carton of oat milk out of the fridge, the barista reassures him that “everyone here is that guy.”
Matt Rivas (C ’21), another member of the Wilcaf team, notes that the oat milk frenzy is part of the culture of the café. He jokes that he has to have a favorite dairy alternative. It seems cow’s milk is a thing of the past with this group of baristas.
“Everyone’s like some sort of environmentalist, so everyone’s like, ‘Oh, we don’t drink dairy milk anymore.’ So now I can’t drink dairy milk in front of them, so I have to do oat milk,” he says.
Amelia, now a junior, joined Wilcaf a year ago after being told by countless people that she fit the “vibe” of the business, though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what this “vibe” entails. Many members of the team mention a passion for sustainability, an appreciation for alternative fashion and culture, and a solid sense of humor.
They share a love of specialty coffee, and many are involved in arts and political groups on campus. Baristas and customers alike chat about politics and their favorite albums.
Although three baristas are on shift at a time in the café, there always seem to be more Wilcaf employees hanging around on any given afternoon. They keep track of each others’ lives, checking in about classes and asking about papers and exams. Two baristas whisper on the side about a developing fling, unpacking drama in coded ways outsiders wouldn’t understand.
“It’s like being in a club,” says Matt. “When people are like ‘What do you do on campus?’ it’s mostly this for me.” He adds that the baristas hang out outside of work, go to each other’s parties and shows, and study together.
Jazzy Ortega (E ’20) mentions that the café has even informally spawned a Wilcaf “house,” where three of their baristas live together and others come to hang out. “It’s definitely a family as well as a part–time job,” she says.
Wilcaf is a student–run café, where the baristas are students, the managers are students, and the customers are members of the Penn community. The café is a part of Penn Student Agencies (PSA), a group of nine student–run businesses at Penn. In November, PSA announced the opening of Benny’s Diner, which will be the tenth student–run business and occupy the space on Houston Hall’s second floor that used to house Paris La Petite Creperie. Students manage Wilcaf’s finances through the larger umbrella of PSA. Many students take up barista jobs in college, but not many coffee shops are run by the students themselves.
PSA first appeared in 1933 with three agencies: the Dorm Laundry Agency, the Parking Squad, and the Trunk Moving Squad. Since then, Penn’s student run businesses have taken on many forms—running coat checks at the Palestra, opening a bartending school for students, and distributing class rings. Today, Wilcaf joins Penn Closet, a student–run thrift store, Penn Student Design, and PSA Bartending—along with five other agencies—to make up the larger umbrella operation of PSA.
Jazzy, who currently works as Wilcaf’s director, oversees day–to–day operations, manages twenty other Wilcaf employees, keeps track of sales and inventory, and represents Wilcaf within PSA.
As director, Jazzy also runs the hiring process. She mentions that they don’t consider an applicant’s work experience as much as their “vibe,” a word that she, Matt, and Amelia all mention while describing the café.
Rather than just considering practical skills and experience, “It’s really how you get along, the camaraderie you have during the interview, if you seem personable, if you seem cheery and responsible, and we think you’ll get along with our group—that probably is the heaviest weight,” she adds.
As a freshman, Jazzy submitted a job application through the Penn Portal to what she thought of as a random café, picking it out over a host of other boring jobs. She hadn’t heard of Wilcaf before sending her application in.
“I thought it would be cool to work in a café, and I did catering in high school,” Jazzy says. “I just ended up falling into something really cool.”
As the post–lunch rush progresses, baristas pick up the pace. A line forms. On one of the first chilly days of the semester, baristas lay out hot chocolates, lattes, and chai teas on the bar. The three baristas on the job move with ease even as the rush picks up, gliding between orders. They make it look easy. Some customers slide to the register comfortably, knowing exactly what their order is.
“Double–shot.” “No foam.” “With room.”
A middle–aged customer strikes up a conversation with an off–duty barista about the Rubik’s cube she’s solving in the back corner of the café. Two baristas plan a “lineage” pregame for the homecoming events of the coming weekend, and another compliments a woman, who carries herself like a regular, on her newly–dyed turquoise hair.
A steady beat of alternative pop hums in the background. Baristas dance from the register to the refrigerator with cups in hand, weaving in and out of each other’s paths. Some even sing along, washing out cups used to froth milk, popping bagels in the toaster, and offering friendly greetings to passersby.
“My greatest compliment that I’ve ever gotten from working at the café is that someone liked my playlist, and it literally made my life,” Amelia laughs.
The baristas have a communal account on Spotify (@williamscafe) which follows dozens of specially–crafted playlists for the café. The coffee shop queues Frank Ocean, Glass Animals, and Fleetwood Mac.
“I don’t know what it is, I couldn’t tell you, but there are certain songs I hear and I’m like, that is a Wilcaf song,” Amelia adds.
Towards the end of Amelia’s shift, an older professor strikes up a conversation about Kendra Brooks’ recent election to Philadelphia’s City Council. One of Amelia’s friends runs over to analyze a cryptic text she received last night. Amelia gives drink recommendations, washes dishes, and adds whipped cream to at least 15 hot chocolates.
Baristas come and go, throwing on baseball caps, punching in their hours, switching on and off shift in between classes, and making themselves iced coffees, lattes, and cappuccinos on the run. Every shift brings new drinks, new music, and new customers.
As a student–run business, baristas can take the time to engage with professors and students. “I know we have a lot of really interesting conversations with professors. We have a lot of regulars,” Matt says. “There’s the same like five or six people who are lined up there when I open.”
The baristas have different tastes. Amelia and Jazzy swear by the oat milk dirty chai, but Matt would recommend a raspberry mocha. Whatever you choose to drink, there will be the same regulars awaiting the store’s opening and baristas already behind the counter, some of whom aren’t even on shift. That’s just the way Wilcaf does business.