There are only four on-campus dining options that students can use on the college meal plan: Sharples Dining Hall, Essie Mae’s Snack bar, and the “coffee bars” stationed in Kohlberg Hall and the Science Center. Each has its own specific clientele, set of unspoken rules, and its own micro-culture. It’s common knowledge that you have about a five-second window to bump your meal to the full seven dollars at Essie’s by grabbing handfuls of fruit snacks from beside the cash register as the line piles up. Everyone at Sharples is terrified of the primordial ooze in which we drop our alfredo-laden silverware at the end of another pasta bar. Kohlberg coffee bar, known for its daily lunch specials of palak paneer and chicken vindaloo served in circular tupperware, has its own established practices as well.
In the case of Kohlberg coffee bar, the architects and gatekeepers of the micro-culture are Dining Services staff members Kim Armstrong and Michelle Hartel. In the ten minute windows in between classes during the week, Armstrong and Hartel are a flurry of precisely choreographed activity. Their roles switch throughout the course of a day or week, but general patterns stay constant: one takes orders on register, calling out, “Next please!” at a volume level that can make a groggy pre-8:30 a.m. student jump, while the other hands out drinks at a dizzying pace. On the counter in front of them, pastries and yogurts are neatly organized until they get carried away one-by-one by hungry students, staff, and faculty. Some might find the brutal efficiency of these ten-minute bursts off-putting; but approaching Armstrong and Hartel in a lull offers a completely different experience.
Working at the college is a family tradition for Hartel; her 23-year career began after her mother’s own career at the college, while the Northeast native Armstrong joined the college in 2011 after a career as an accountant. Originally, Armstrong was a temporary staff member, filling in when other staff went on vacation or called out sick at Essie’s, but then became full-time college staff and moved to Kohlberg.
Each day at the coffee bar has a familiar rhythm: Hartel arrives at 7am and Armstrong closes out at 5pm, and for most of the day, the two work together to caffeinate & satiate the community. Even when it’s not in between classes or the lunch rush, the duo are always productive.
“There’s always something to do. We’re always ordering, things coming in constantly,” Hartel said.
One thing does stay constant throughout the day: Armstrong prefers to act as the “good cop,” while Hartel relishes the role of “bad cop.” Armstrong noted that while she encourages the line to move forward with a smile, Hartel’s style is a bit more forceful.
“You really have to stay focused… and I don’t look up… [but] I want to be able to acknowledge everybody that comes through the line. But at that point, you can’t. And like you said, when you come back at three thirty or in the morning, [Hartel] has her morning crowd… it’s just a different crowd to socialize [with],” Armstrong said.
Armstrong’s leadership style isn’t the same in all the different aspects of her life; she noted that while she is at home with her family, she is usually the tougher authority figure. She mentioned that Hartel has influence the way she interacts with customers and influences her leadership style while at work.
“[Armstrong’s] always the good cop. The thing is, when [Armstrong] first came here, she was real nice. She used to be real sweet. [I said, ‘Armstrong], you gotta move these people. And then she realized [she] ain’t messing around any more,” Hartel explained.
Running such an efficient operation takes a clearly defined strategy in order to be successful. Both Hartel and Armstrong agreed that communication and teamwork are the most important factors in their success.
“You really just have to learn to be a team and work with each other. We’re all going to have our issues, [but] it’s only [Hartel] and I, so we don’t deal with different personalities. We know each other… some days it doesn’t always work out perfect, but, we do a nice job together,” Armstrong said. She stressed that working out the kinks as the day goes by are particularly important.
“If I have a problem, I say something to [Hartel and] she doesn’t have a problem saying something to me,” Armstrong noted. Hartel agreed, explaining that the process of working in such close quarters has improved in recent years.
“In our space, we’re real tiny. This has actually been expanded,” Hartel said, noting that the conversion of the Faculty Lounge into the offices of the department of film & media studies gave the coffee bar some extra wiggle room.
While many of the day-to-day operations stay constant as the weeks go by, there have been a few surprises over the years. Both Armstrong and Hartel agreed that the most memorable day on the job was the day a flood behind the counter forced them to close the bar early.
“It was just so funny, we were like knee deep back here in water… but it was funny, because we were trying to close, but trying to be sanitary about it as well,” Armstrong said.
But in addition, Hartel noted that the little joys that happen every day are a highlight of the job.
“I think the people make the day. There’s a lot of people that we’ve become friends with, [Armstrong] and I, and I think it’s like, they talk to us as friends instead of employees. And I think we’ve established a clientele,” she said. Hartel also noted that some members of the college community treat them strictly as staff members, using the word “subservient” to describe the power dynamic; she said it depends on the person. But she said the duo have formed some close relationships with community members over the years, hopefully with more to come.