Paces Café Gets Serious About Creative Eating

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When Paces Café kicks off the semester on Sunday night, it won’t just be a grand opening. It’ll be a reboot, an upgrade, a deep improvement to a campus fixture already loved by many.

What’s at the heart of the change is the management. Not the people themselves-—Head Director Mallory Pitser ’14, Assistant Director Treasure Tinsley ’15, and Events Coordinator Tayler Tucker ‘13, have all been part of Paces in the past—-but rather the organizational structure and coherence of vision. With a new structure that Pitser can be “authoritative but not authoritarian.” Paces’ leaders and staff are prepared to work together to make the café a premier hub of creativity on campus.

As a gathering space, Paces seeks to be a hub where food, music, art, conversation all come together. You’ll be able to sit with your friends around spruced up tables (note the contemporary centerpieces) and eat fancy snacks like a brie, pesto, and arugula sandwich, surrounded by art produced by Swatties like Sarah Diamond ‘13. On certain days there’ll music or club takeovers, engaging the café with the production of art and active intellectual life at Swarthmore.

The artwork of Sarah Diamond ’13 is currently being exhibited at Paces café. Photo credit Andrew Karas.

A big ship takes a long time to turn, and Paces is a $40,000 (and counting) ship. But they’re tightening up. With cost-efficiency, careful accounting, and a talented set of chefs and artists, Paces will be able to experiment with ambitious new initiatives this year. They also expect to attract and accommodate more customers in order to grow the café into a self-sustaining, student-run, student-supported service on campus.

One of the most visible changes will be an “increase in the number of exotic and upscale items […] without increasing the cost,” Pitser said. Commenting on last year’s menu, she says, “honestly I can make a quesadilla at Sharples […] I’d never buy it at Paces personally.” This doesn’t mean quesadillas are gone, but they’ll be available loaded with avocado.

The new drinks you’ll find can’t be concocted in an average dorm room. And the four-grilled-cheeses sandwich and caprese salad hope to push the limits of what’s available on Swat’s campus while showcasing students’ cooking skills.

Paces Assistant Director Treasure Tinsley '15 here appears hard at work organizing the café for the semester. Photo credit Sarah Kim

The eating area has new coats of paint (maroon on the pillars and yellow on a previously-plain wall) and hip table settings. Student artwork fills the blank spaces on the upper portion of the room. “A huge push this year is atmosphere, by including student stuff,” Pitser said. She also expects a smoke-free buildings policy will be enforced this semester.

The waiting area is where the most noticeable changes have occurred. The wall behind the counter has been spruced up by a vibrant new mural that students painted in the last couple of weeks. The counter itself has been cleaned up and splashed with color; up above it the menu is clearly written out on large blackboards that hang from the ceiling.

Liner notes, salvaged from the on-going McCabe music giveaway, decorate the kitchen doorframe. Photo credit Andrew Karas.

Pitser admits that wait times need to go down. To address this persistent problem, customers will be asked to order at the counter. This way, servers will no longer have to collect and deliver orders, so overall wait times will decrease. As a side-effect, paying upfront will put an end to the dine-and-dash. Of course, a fear is that the new policy will generate a line out the door, but only time will tell.

But not everyone will need to go to the counter to order. Students will also be able to call-in orders between ten and midnight. For an extra dollar, a student on a bike will make any deliveries that total ten dollars. This service is designed to get food to those who can’t easily get to Paces, like residents of ML and PPR who’ve already retired for the night. Student organizations and study groups may also find the service useful.

All this will require more money in the budget. Right now, the café receives have $30,000 in funding directly from the Deans’ Office. Nearly all of this is spent on wages, and the balance goes towards facilities improvements. As a result, every last dollar of groceries needs to be paid for out of revenue—-and while students may complain that prices are too high, Pitser contends that “we aim only to make up for grocery expenses” with those prices.

“[We’re] trying to figure out how low we can charge things, and we don’t know,” Pitser said. More precise inventory work will make it easier buy only what will be used and charge only what’s necessary. That said, it’s still hard to stock everything that one might ask for at a café. Any napkins or take-out boxes that might be purchased will appear in food prices, leaving little room for error.

Paces Cafe hopes to serve record-breaking numbers of students this semester. Photo credit Andrew Karas.

Pitser also hopes to add $10,000 in additional wages to next year’s budget. A proposal was presented to the Deans by Dean Flowers on Tuesday. The hope is to be able to afford more staff, for things like after-hours open mic nights or overtime baking. Pitser also hopes to be able to pay staff for the extra half-hour that they already work for free on busy nights.

Some positions are paid unfairly, she said. “Whoever assess the wages, we need to change that. [It’s] a little messed up.

There’s no shortage of qualified staff, either. Out of eighty applicants, Pitser says they easily eliminate ten but then have far more than the thirty they need. She adds that usefulness of Paces jobs go beyond the walls of the café. Skills learned at the oven or the cash register can be transferred over to real-world jobs.

The new mural was a group project, and took place over multiple days. Photo credit Daily Gazette Photography

Pitser also hopes that the Deans will allow the entire budget to be rolled over at the end of the year so that cost savings can be seen not as a waste of money but as a bonus to use during the next year.

In the long-term, they hope they can make enough money to become a self-sustaining business. Though discussions are not yet underway, Pitser believes that if Paces can wean itself off college money entirely, they could qualify for the Dining Services points and meals system. All expenses—wages included—would have to be covered by food prices, and Pitser says it would take at least four years for everything to fall into place.

The table settings add to the welcoming atmosphere at Paces. Note the newly maroon columns. Photo credit Andrew Karas.

In the shorter term, Paces may begin using iPads to take orders. Pitser does not have any concret plans, but she says it’s only a matter of finding an appropriate app and integrating it with the ordering system. She thinks it’s achievable in the next year or sooner.

The café does expect more money to come in as more people come to eat. Pitser says last year saw an increase in demand and she’s anticipating more this year. She adds that professors can sometimes be spotted at Paces, though it’s primarily a student space.

Pitser calls Paces one of Swarthmore’s “only spaces completely student-controlled [which gives it] a unique feel.”

With the focus on student gathering spaces in the upcoming campus Master Plan, it’s not a surprise that a group of architects touring the campus stopped in for a look. Paces is indeed a special place on campus. Hobbs had better watch out.

1 Comment

  1. I’m SO excited for Sunday!! It’s gonna be so much fun. I hope lots of people come in and experience the benefits of all these changes!

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