Four Winds Cafe changes aesthetics, atmosphere and possibly profit margins

Last year, the Four Winds cafe was $15,000 in debt, according to Student Government Business Manager Dawn Shawngood. Over the summer, it was uncertain whether the cafe would be reopened in the fall due to unsanitary conditions.

New manager Johannah Birney (08′) said the debt from last year was cleared. According to Shawngood, $15,000 was transferred from the New College Student Alliance (NCSA) budget to cover the expenses and labor costs that the Four Winds could not cover for the 2011-2012 year. Another $20,000 was supplied for start-up money at the cafe for this year, of which $12,000 came from food service and $8,000 came from Sodexo.

Birney, who was hired last spring to begin her position as manager this fall, said a team of professionals and Four Winds staff made changes to the building to make it safer, cleaner and more sustainable.

“For all intents and purposes, we rebuilt it from the ground up,” Birney said. “In July, I started a one month restoration plan to get the Four Winds ready, in which some of the structural foundation of the building was rebuilt. A professional team came in to wax the floors and sanitize all of the equipment, specifically in the kitchen, to sanitize the walls and to do the dusting in the rafters.”

The revamping of the cafe included adding new furniture and changing the cafe layout. Now, Birney said, the cafe can comfortably fit 70 people at a time.

The team also repainted the cafe yellow.

“I read a very inspirational book called The Persistence of Yellow,” Birney said. “It’s a book dedicated to illuminating how positive and full of blessings our life is, so I brought that book to Home Depot and I had them match the color so the walls [of the cafe] are the same color as the book cover.”

Using the $1,100 in Green Fee money they acquired last semester, the cafe purchased more efficient water faucets for their sinks, which will save water and money.

“We’re also investing in an Energy Star oven that uses quite a bit less energy,” Birney said. “It’s extremely efficient and that will also save us on our electricity bill.”

Birney hired several new staff members, mostly lower years who could work at the Four Winds for more years, and also tweaked the staff jobs. According to newly hired second-year and prep team member Ganga Braun, each staff member has a specific job but is now also trained to do any other jobs necessary.

“That’s actually a huge, important change from the Four Winds in the past,” Braun said. “In the past, I’d go in there and there would be a number of people working behind the counter but no one knew how to do register because they were all cooking. It would get really back logged because people weren’t all trained in all the different positions.”

Instead of having two food prep team leaders, the cafe now has one chef, third-year and returning staff member Cady Gonzalez, along with four members on the prep team. Birney said reducing the number of prep team staff has lead to greater consistency with the food.

Gonzalez is in charge of creating the new menu every week. “We try to have seven items on that menu,” Gonzalez said. Frequent items are a rice-and-beans dish, salad, soup and a sandwich.

“We also like to have a cohesive theme for the menu where things can be paired together,” Gonzalez added. Past themes have included Jewish Week and Burger Week. Next week, the theme will be Spanish-Asian fusion.

All this effort seems to be paying off.

“We have pretty much broken […] the historical sales record consistently,” Birney said. “We’ve made more money in these past four weeks than was ever previously made [in a four week period]. We spend less than what we make. So thus far, we’ve reduced our employment costs and we’ve reduced our food costs so that we have a very good chance of being in the black in the end of the year. We do not have all of the information to give a concrete [profit] number, as our expenses and our sales overlap from week to week, but the Business Office and people working in accounting are feeling confident — and I myself am feeling pretty confident — that the restaurant is doing well economically.”

Birney added that a major goal of hers is to make the Four Winds autonomous. She said so far this year, the cafe has not needed assistance from the NCSA. Additionally, Birney said she wants NCF to know where the cafe money is going.

“We will be publishing quarterly reports because I want the school to have a transparent view of what money goes into the Four Winds,” Birney said. “When we close down for the week of fall break, that will be the opportunity to balance all of the books and to have a very concrete idea of what our profit margins look like.”

To attract more customers and especially first-years and transfer students who may be unfamiliar with the Four Winds, Birney said the cafe plans to host more consistent events. So far, the cafe has thrown two open-mic nights, a drag show and a poetry reading. The Four Winds has also catered events for the NCSA and the Student Allocations Committee (SAC).

New staff member and thesis-student Elliot Evins is in charge of another new event, Pizza Fridays.

Financial outlook aside, the changes to the Four Winds may be attracting more customers than before.

“I had been there last year […] not very often though, because I didn’t like it,” second-year Elizabeth Sockol said. This semester, however, Sockol says she goes to the cafe much more.

“Now I just feel a lot happier there,” Sockol said. “Last year I didn’t feel very welcome there [but] this year it’s very clean, it’s very open, it’s very friendly. I think the food is a lot better than it was last year. I just feel like this year, it’s like being around a professional business.”

Second-year Leah Duncan also said she likes the food better this year. “Also the service seems to be quicker as far as getting the food out to you,” Duncan said. “It’s been a lot busier this semester than last semester, especially around the lunch rush. But last semester I liked the atmosphere a little bit better. There were more couches so it was nice to hang out inside.” However, Braun said that the cafe will soon be getting more couches.

Staff members have also noticed an increase in use of the cafe. “The Four Winds has much more of a presence on campus than it has in the past years that I’ve been here,” Evins said.

“People who never came because they felt really uncomfortable [now] come all the time,” Braun said. “Last year, things felt pretty exclusionary at times. The staff and the regular customers and everybody often just felt exclusive [and] it felt a lot like high school at times.”

Evins added that professors often hold meetings at the cafe now. Birney, Braun and Evins all said it seems that people are taking more ownership of the Four Winds, which is what they want.

Upgrades to the cafe will continue throughout the year.

“The Four Winds Cafe is going to be getting electricity on the porch, which currently we don’t have,” Birney said. “That will […] make throwing events much easier [and] studying much easier for students that use laptops.”

Birney, who believes NCF is “the only college to use Green Fee money for capital investments in restaurants,” said she is working on getting the Four Winds certified by the Green Restaurant Association.

“The Green Restaurant Association is a national third party certifier of the level of sustainability in restaurants,” Birney said. “I believe the Four Winds Cafe could be […] certified with four stars, which is their highest certification. But right now my priority is not so much getting us certification but getting to the point were we deserve the certification.”


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