As of Monday, it’s been 906 days since FRCC Westminster has had a functioning cafeteria. It was easy to understand for some time; with COVID running rampant, it was logically the first area to be out of commission. Large gatherings of maskless people in one contained room eating and sharing food would have been a hub for COVID transmissions between students and staff alike. But now that most people are vaccinated and the rest of the school is back to normal, why is the cafeteria still closed?
“First off,” Dr. Tricia Johnson, the Vice President of the Westminster Campus joked, “it’s actually called the cafe–just a little branding thing, there.”
Branding aside, Johnson explained the reason it’s closed actually dates back as early as 2019 when usage of the in-school food service area reached a low.
“The folks who were running [it] had been seeing less and less usage in the cafe over the last several years,” she said.
Once the active user base fell below a certain number of students, the cafeteria model was no longer cost effective, which was a problem as the cafe is meant to operate as financially independent from the rest of the college.
To explore solutions to the problem, Front Range administration attended, according to Johnson, “a conference in the summer of 2019…The National Association of College and University Food Service, for people who do that kind of work, and they talk about the challenges that they’re experiencing, and new and innovative things happening in food service on college and university campuses.”
Johnson said that they’d found a potential solution at that conference.
“[They were] learning that a lot of the smaller schools were going away from a cafeteria concept,” she said, “because they couldn’t sustain it, and they were going to more of a convenience store set up, that had hot grab-and-go options. Not just cold things, not just things that would be taken out of a refrigerator and put into a microwave, but warm food, along with salads and wraps and stuff.”
“And so, knowing that we couldn’t have the cafe open during COVID,” Johnson said, “[the administration] continued to research ‘what might this look like?’ if we changed from the old cafeteria style that we had previously, into a grab-and-go style. It also enabled them to think about some sustainability efforts, in terms of reducing waste. [With the cafeteria model], you prepare a lot of things that sit there, they don’t get [eaten], and that’s not a good solution either.”
“So… while we were trying to figure out how to run a college during a pandemic,” Johnson said, “they looked at ‘how can we modify those food services for when we do get back? By fall of 2020, we still [couldn’t open the cafeteria], but by spring of 2021, things were looking like we were going to be able to open things back up, so [the people who run the cafe] started working on a substantial project, to do a renovation of the current space. With a change from a full cafeteria to a grab-and-go [model], where they wouldn’t need as much square footage, which enables them to give that space back to the college.”
Johnson’s explanation of the proposed changes to the cafe introduces an entirely new question; if the decision to update was made by 2019 and pursued as early as spring of 2021, then why is the cafeteria still closed?
“The challenge then, while it wasn’t the virus of COVID, it was all of the ripple effects of COVID: staffing, contracting- all of these things were [barriers],” Johnson said. “The intention was: get the project designed, get it completed over the summer of 2022… and have it open for the fall semester, [but] the design process took substantially longer than we thought it was going to take. They were not even able to even start demolition until the summer, which put us substantially further behind.”
“Consistent with any construction project that’s been going on since COVID started,” she said, “there are so many delays- there are labor shortages, because of supply chain issues, you run into challenges in getting the equipment that you need. So that’s the timing, and why it continues to be closed, and why it wasn’t done while the college was closed- work was happening to design and research it, and it was intended to be open [for fall of 2022], but things got in the way of that.”
To put it succinctly, the cafeteria- or more accurately the cafe, is still closed because the planned renovations to turn it into a more convenience store type of setup, which the administration thought necessary to deal with changing student demand, have taken longer than expected to design and build.
In that case, what is it going to be like after the renovations are done? It’s mostly going to look like a convenience store. It’s going to have hot grab-and-go options, like a convenience store would, but it will also have things that are made fresh like wraps and salads, as well as a pizza oven to make, well, pizza. Johnson was able to provide the following renders to The Front Page, but she cautioned that, while the final product will look mostly like the renders, they are not finalized and minor changes may be implemented.
Correction: September 15th, 2022
A previous version of this article had misquoted Tricia Johnson as saying that the cafeteria couldn’t be open in fall of 2021. This has been corrected to the fall of 2020.