“It Was Too Funky to Last”


McGill architecture students Jessica Dan (left) and Aurore Paluel-Marmont work at the Architecture Café, which is slated to be replaced by a corporate licensee. Photo by John Kenney

Like all good secrets, the Architecture Café is a bit hard to find, tucked as it is in the basement of McGill University’s School of Architecture.

Most students, unless they have a class in the lecture hall next door, are unlikely to come across it by chance. Yet this non-profit student-run café has long been one of the most popular spaces on campus, filled throughout the day with students and faculty from across the university.

At lunchtime, a line usually bends out the door and down a hallway as customers file in for sandwiches, pastries, zaatar and bargain-priced coffee.

Many see the café, started in 1993, as an alternative to the other cafeterias at McGill, which are run by such corporate licensees as Chartwells, a subsidiary of Compass Group Canada.

As students head back to classes, they might find that the last student-operated café at Montreal’s oldest university is packing up for good: McGill’s administration has ordered it closed.

According to Morton Mendelson, deputy provost of student life and learning, the move reflects the administration’s efforts to centralize food service on campus as a means to ensure health safety.

But since news of the café’s fate broke in early August, students have rallied behind a drive to keep it alive. A Facebook group called Save the Architecture Café, founded by the café’s student operators, drew more than 1,500 current and former McGill students as members within a week.

Comments posted on the group’s page range from earnest (“It is very important to save this café, it means a lot to McGill students and especially the small businesses that provide the food to this café”) to wistful (“I love you dear Arch. You are the light at the end of my tunnel. You are Superman, and I am Lois Lane”).

“I’m not surprised,” by the turn of events, said Pieter Sijpkes, an architecture professor whose students designed and opened the café as a class project 14 years ago. “It was too funky to last. (McGill administration) wants to squeeze tens of thousands of dollars out of their licensees. These guys are a leak.”

Jessica Dan, president of the Architecture Students’ Association, which oversees the café, said “the university’s goal is to turn this into an antiseptic Chartwells with $2 Starbucks coffee. I think they are thinking a bit too much about their pocketbook.”

Not so, Mendelson said. “A number of years ago, we felt that we had to be the sole provider of food service on campus. The driving force is health safety and to have a university-wide strategy to serve the entire community,” he said. “The Architecture Café has been operating in some measure under the radar, but we’re not going to allow a student association to provide food. It could only take one incident to expose the university to reputational or financial harm.”

The students who operate the café can either hand over the space to McGill’s Ancillary Services to be operated as a cafeteria, or convert it into a student lounge, Mendelson said.

“To the extent that Ancillary Services makes money, it is to the benefit of the students,” he said. “The interests of students are the interests of the university.”

Dan, of the architecture students’ association, said they have no need for a lounge. “We have four floors of student lounges. We essentially live here. The café is where we go to connect and take a break. Closing it would be highly detrimental to our student life.”

Dan also takes issue with Mendelson’s argument that the café is a liability. “We have a food licence just like any other business. Food inspectors come. We haven’t had an incident. There has never been an incident,” she said.

The Architecture Café, however, does operate far differently from McGill’s other cafeterias. Its 40 employees, including six managers, are all architecture students who otherwise tend to spend their time sequestered in studios.

“This café allows us to interact with the entire student body,” said Aurora Paluel-Marmont, the café’s food manager. “We have exhibitions of our work and we also get a lot of business experience from working here.”

The café also collaborates with campus environmental groups, including Gorilla Composting, to which it donates its used coffee grounds. Customers who bring their own mug get a 50-per-cent discount on coffee.

If the Architecture Café closes, Dan said, the outside community will also feel the impact. All of its suppliers are based near McGill: The organic, fair-trade coffee comes from Santropol; the muffins come from Café Rencontre on Park Ave. and the churros and quesadillas come from a local cook.

But the biggest shock would be to the student community. A large part of the Architecture Café’s appeal lies in its low prices: Its coffee and food is roughly half as costly as the fare at McGill’s licensed cafeterias. The most expensive cup of coffee, for instance, is $1, tax included. Under McGill’s proposal to covert the space into a centrally operated cafeteria, Starbucks coffee would be sold for $1.92 plus tax.

The atmosphere is an even bigger draw, café regulars said.

“It’s relaxed, the food is a good value, everyone knows to go there, so it’s a good meeting place. It doesn’t feel like a franchise the way a lot of Chartwells do,” said Sam Imberman, an undergraduate geography student.

Michael Jemtrud, the new director of the School of Architecture, is sympathetic to the cause.

“When I was here as a grad student in the mid-’90s, the café was a great feature of the school,” he said. “Architects normally aren’t good at business. Having a business model that is open to the entire student community, if that’s not learning, I don’t know what is.”

For now, Jemtrud and Dan are optimistic that some sort of compromise can be reached.

As a show of support for its customers, the café will open on Wednesday, September 5th to give away free coffee.

Autonomous cafés abound at UQAM

Unlike McGill, where the Architecture Café remains the last student-run café on campus, the Université du Québec à Montréal has seven autonomous, non-profit cafés operated by its various student unions. As part of a collective agreement with UQAM, in order to prevent direct competition with university-run cafeterias, the student cafés cannot sell hot food, so instead they make a point of stocking fair trade coffee and locally-produced snacks.

“Each faculty has the right to operate a student café,” explained Sylvain Thibault, UQAM’s director of food services. “We have agreements that govern what they can and can’t do, so there’s a mutual respect and a sort of balance.”

Alexandre Leduc, coordinator for the Association facultaire étudiante des sciences humaines, which runs the popular Café Aquin, says that student cafés offer certain distinct advantages over the university’s cafeterias. “Most cafeterias only hire full-time, so here, students can have a part-time job on their campus, which is great. We pay well, too, and we have a large diversity of products for sale. Most of our suppliers are based nearby.”

Occasionally, the university and the student cafés come into conflict. Two years ago, a cafeteria near the Café Aquin was replaced with a Van Houtte coffee shop. “It failed because our clients are very loyal. We gave out free coffee and eventually the Van Houtte closed.”

This article was originally published in the September 4, 2007 edition of the Montreal Gazette.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday September 05 2007at 03:09 am , filed under Canada and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to ““It Was Too Funky to Last””

  • carrie says:

    I hate McGill. This is one more reason to hate it. I would burn my degree from there if I could remember where I put it.

  • […] Ah well.  Just saw at UrbanPhoto that McGill’s Architecture Cafe is closing. […]

  • I was a McGill Arch student from 1996 to 2001 and relied on the healthy food as well as cheap coffee at the Arch Café. I also worked there. It was the most progressive space on campus. We had fair-trade coffee and a non-corporatiste ambiance. The l’UQàM example is a great one to follow and proves that McGill could rethink its ‘health’ concerns.

    It would be a total shame to see the Arch Café corporatised. A loss for the entire campus and a loss for architecture students who often spend all night in their studios.

  • Yet Another Frikkin Starbucks…

    Apparently on a campaign to purge all that is charming and distinctive and wonderful on its campus, McGill’s deputy provost of student life has ordered closed the Architecture Cafe, presumably to be replaced with another Chartwell’s outlet …

  • Christophe Weibel says:

    I have never heard anything so stupid in my life.

    These guys have a nice place, run by students learning to be independent and to have responsibilities, a place which is successful, which makes McGill a little bit special, and… The university wants to replace it by an aseptic cafeteria like there are dozens around, and which nobody will like.

    Shame on the administration!