Although our meeting is virtual, I can almost feel the sunshine radiating off of Jazzy Ortega’s (E ‘20) screen on Zoom. Maybe it’s because she’s video calling from outside her home in Southern California, with a backdrop of blue sky and healthy green trees. Or maybe it’s because from the moment we started the meeting, Jazzy hasn’t stopped smiling. Although the second half of her semester has been—to put it nicely—not what she expected, her optimism doesn’t waver throughout the interview.
The first half of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering curriculum was grueling. With five challenging STEM classes almost every semester until halfway through junior year, Jazzy “dreaded going back to Penn after breaks.” She tells me, “It was always up in the air about whether I should have stayed in California for school.” While she was studying in Van Pelt or working at Williams Cafe (affectionately called WilCaf), her friends from home were spending reading days on the beach. For Jazzy, Penn perpetuated a non–stop busy lifestyle, a stigma around not doing too much.
For a long time, as a mental break on Sunday nights, Jazzy would watch an episode of TV and give herself a manicure. It was a sacred ritual during an otherwise hectic schedule.
During particularly stressful times, Jazzy’s mom suggested that perhaps she quit one of her jobs. But that was out of the question for Jazzy. “WilCaf was my escape,” she says. While she had another job working at libraries in West Philadelphia, she was able to do some homework when there was a lull. But during her shifts at WilCaf, “the backpack went to the side.” Jazzy relished the ability to hang out with her friends on shift, make drinks (she recommends the iced oat milk dirty chai), and vibe to WilCaf’s famous Spotify playlists. Jazzy was instrumental in revamping WilCaf’s Spotify page, and it is her “pride and joy.”
Jazzy “stumbled upon” WilCaf the summer before her first year. She was perusing the student employment website and thought it would be fun to work at a cafe. It wasn’t until she went to the first meeting during NSO that she realized it was student–run. Since then, Jazzy gushes that WilCaf became “the love of my life and I’ll love her forever.”
Surprisingly, the moment Jazzy felt at peace with her decision to forgo the sunny West Coast for Penn was during a meeting with Housing and Residential services about what was at the time called PSA Cafe, but would later be named Benny’s Diner after Ben Franklin. “I was in a place where a student can come up and say ‘I want to use this university building for a restaurant, and it might sound crazy’ and then Penn was like ‘Alright, tell me how!’ I walked out of there really proud that day, and I felt like I could genuinely do something.”
Jazzy and her cofounder Michael Warren (C’21) came up with the idea for a student–run restaurant on Penn’s campus after attending a student–run business conference at Harvard last spring, and seeing other student–run restaurants. They initially pitched to take over the space that Tortas Frontera vacated in the spring of 2019. But there were too many logistical issues, such as lack of storage space.
She admits, “When we didn’t get the pitch the first time, honestly, Michael and I ran into each other on Locust Walk and we were like ‘Thank God! I cannot spend another weekend locked away in Van Pelt writing a business proposal.’” But then, during the summer, the university came back to them and offered them the space in Houston Hall that the Paris La Petite Creperie would be vacating. “We were crazy busy, but how could we say no?”
Jazzy and Michael worked tirelessly to have Benny’s diner ready to open this spring. After all of their hard work, Benny’s was ready to open the day after spring break. Jazzy recalls the rollercoaster day in March when she received two emails an hour apart from each other: one that Benny’s Diner had just passed health inspection and was ready to open, and then the email from President Gutmann informing that classes would be conducted remotely for the rest of the semester. Benny’s debut would be delayed until after Jazzy graduated. But Jazzy hopes to stay involved on an advisory board. She wants to see it blossom into a place where people can sit down, eat, and hang out with their friends.
Being around people: working in a team, dancing, making drinks, and staying up until 3 AM having introspective conversations (for example, “I think we just need to redefine the department store”) is how Jazzy succeeded throughout Penn. She couldn’t survive without her CBE study group—seven girls that had classes together and studied for “ungodly amounts of time," and her senior design team, that was flexible and understanding with her Benny’s Diner deadlines. If she could go back to her first year, she would tell herself, “you are not a one–woman show.”
As for the future, Jazzy isn’t sure yet. She hopes to use her degree to work at a cosmetic company that is up to her ethical standards: cruelty–free, vegan, made in the US. But for now, she’s hanging out with her mom, FaceTiming friends to catch up every other day, and getting used to not being busy.
When life goes back to normal—however that may look—and students take a bite out of their Benny’s breakfast, they’ll have Jazzy and her team to thank.