At Williams Cafe, the student–run coffee shop that dominates the first floor of Williams Hall, the coffee is strong, the chatter is incessant, and the energy is buzzing. It’s really one of those places that people tend to stumble into one day and never look back.
Because what’s not to love?
For WilCaf executive director Sarah Finkelstein (C ‘22), it was hardly love at first sight. "As a freshman," she reminisces, "I never came to WilCaf, because I was on a dining plan and didn’t want to spend my money." Now, she's the one who manages the money that caffeine–fiend students eagerly spend on a myriad of items, from the tried–and–true iced coffee to locally made pastries. At the end of her freshman year, Sarah applied to be a barista. ”When I started working there, it was just everything I needed,” she says. Since then, it's been a central part of her Penn experience, behind the coffee bar and beyond. “It’s very much a connection–building place. All of us being students makes it less ‘I am visiting a coffee shop’ and more like ‘I am engaging with my community at Penn,’" Sarah says.
Brendan Lui (C ‘22) began frequenting the cafe in his freshman year because he had classes in Williams. Now, the political science student is the cafe’s training manager and social chair, “because as a cafe, we’ve got one of those,” he chuckles. But of course they do. WilCaf is a social space just as much as it’s a food establishment, student association, or small business. What is it about this place that draws people in?
For Sarah, it all comes down to one thing: It’s run by Penn students for Penn students. “We create a really approachable energy, maybe because we’re all students, but it’s also a product of the people we have working there,” she explains. “People like to feel they’re having a human interaction when they go into a coffee shop, which is something that we prioritize a lot at WilCaf.” When people enter the cafe, they can feel the positive energy radiating from behind the counter.
WilCaf’s new program to connect with local farmers in West Philly to compost coffee grounds is a great example of how the staff themselves are able to contribute to growing WilCaf. Thanks to senior Maeve Masterson, the cafe is now able to directly interact with community members outside of the Penn bubble while also benefiting as a business through their newfound composting initiative.
An environmental studies major, Maeve has been interested in composting for most of her life and decided to take action. "We were messing around about my legacy at WilCaf, but because I've generally been into composting for most of my life and realized that there's tons of waste at the café from our spent coffee grounds that we would dump into the trash, I remembered that coffee grounds are really nutrient rich and regarded as a really great composting source for farms and in local urban circular economies," she says. As a relative newbie, having joined the WilCaf staff this past year, Masterson's composting initiative may have seemed daunting. However, through the help of the cafe's leadership team and baristas, the cafe has been able to reform the way they compost and process waste.
Masterson first reached out through a listserv of urban farmers and offered the cafe's used coffee grounds to whoever might find them useful for compost. Now, WilCaf has partnered with two Philly farmers: mushroom farmer Jonah, who is experimenting with indoor growing and hydroponics with hopes of being able to get his sustainably sourced, energy–efficient mushrooms into the kitchens of Philadelphia restaurants, and community grower Hannah, who volunteers at Woodlands and Warrington Community Gardens, where she uses the cafe's ground to contribute to inner–city gardening initiatives. The two farmers drop buckets off at the café and the staff fills them with used coffee grounds. Then, when they're full, Masterson texts them and they come pick the buckets up themselves.
The composting initiative has had an immediate impact. According to Jonah, mushroom farmers typically have to use grains or sawdust to grow mushrooms, which entails a high–energy sterilization process. However, WilCaf's already–sterilized coffee grounds allow him to skip that step, minimizing the amount of energy necessary to grow his product. Masterson gets audibly excited discussing Jonah's projects and his plans to distribute the mushrooms and the proceeds from his sales into the community, and it's clear that this is a passion project as much as a business initiative.
WilCaf strikes me, based on the conversations I've been able to have, as a place with room for everyone's passions. More than WilCaf employees or baristas, the staff present themselves to each other and their customers as people—people who care about things outside of work and school and bring that to their job with them. That element of freedom and space for expression directly contributes to the cafe as a community space; it's comforting to walk in somewhere and see a familiar face behind the bar, open to having a conversation about your T–shirt or a shared class. But beyond that, it's critical to the business aspect of the cafe. Masterson's idea, borne from her unique perspective on food waste and production, has clipped the cafe's margins significantly. Previously, they had been using a paid composting service to do the pickup and distribution of used coffee grounds. Now, thanks to Masterson's inspiration and WilCaf's collective efforts to contribute to the composting process, the cafe “no longer has to pay for a service that had, ultimately, become unsustainable for us as a small business,” explains Sarah.
Balancing the role of WilCaf as a business and WilCaf as a community space is something that Sarah found challenging at first, especially coming into her role as executive director during the pandemic. After being shut down for almost a year and a half due to COVID–19, people were just happy to be back in the corner of Williams, whether they’re sitting silently elbow–to–elbow with a friend, scribbling in notebooks, commiserating and regaling each other with weekend tales over lattes, or, recently, coming in for one of WilCaf’s community events. When I sat down with Sarah, WilCaf was running a Valentine’s Day event where people could come in and write a Valentine to stick on the wall. Later on in the day, she informed me, cafe visitors could enjoy live music and a bake sale.
When it comes down to it, a visit to WilCaf is much more than just a caffeine kick. “One of my professors said, ‘I feel like WilCaf is one of those places on campus where people forget they have things to do and jobs to apply for and assignments to finish. It’s just everyone coming and grabbing a coffee.’ I totally agree with that, I think it’s just one of those fun spaces,” Sarah says.
Ultimately, it comes down to the cafe being student–run, breaking down the typical barriers between seller and consumer, customer and business. But more than that, WilCaf actively produces an environment where the people of the business are front and center, and I'm not just talking about their faces being the first thing to greet you when you walk in the door.
The people of WilCaf and their personalities are embedded in the way the business runs, the products they put out, and the events they have to offer us as a student body. It's a place to satiate the body (hurrah, hurrah, chai latte!), mind (open mics soon to come, of course), and spirit (just think of the rush of trudging into Williams to endure your last class of the day, only to see a group of your friends huddled in the corner, sipping and spilling the tea). Probably a good portion of the people who are reading this article right now are part of the WilCaf following.
But for those of you who don't know, now you know. WilCaf is the place to be.