The Bistro Family: 20 Years of Common Grounds
To its patrons, the Bistro is the place to enjoy the warmth of a cup of coffee, smell the sweetness of freshly baked cookies or scones, get comfortable on the funky mismatched and oft-painted furniture, and study or talk with friends.
To the long line of people who have worked at this student-owned and operated shop, it's a testament to entrepreneurial spirit, a place to gain work experience, and, most important, their second home. "It's a job, but it doesn't always feel like a job because you're with your friends," says Melissa Dean '07, the current general manager. "We like to say we're the Bistro family."
The sense of community created by the Bistro -- evident in the work ethic of the staff and in the diversity of patrons it draws from campus and the surrounding city -- is a unique spirit that has driven the business since its 1986 founding by two students who just wanted a place to hang out.
In late September, about 130 members of the Bistro family -- supporters and past employees -- returned to their former home to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Some of them hopped behind the counter for a shift. Others attended a concert reinforcing the Bistro's long-standing reputation as a center for campus entertainment.
The reunion's theme was "20 Years of Common Grounds," and though these former employees have gone on to a wide array of careers -- from attorneys to school principals to chemists to software engineers -- many fondly remember their original "common grounds" of keeping the coffee and tasty treats flowing. "There's always this fondness for the Bistro," says Darby Schroeder '88, a member of the Bistro's first staff and a manager during its second year. "It doesn't matter if the current Bistro staff is 20 years younger than you. There's still a camaraderie over time."
How It All Began
It was two freshman roommates from Matthews Hall, Eric Friedenwald-Fishman '88 and John Donovan '88, who started it all. They vividly remember complaining that there were no good places to go at night for coffee in Salem. "At some point when we were whining and moaning about this, people said, 'Why don't you do something about it?'" Friedenwald-Fishman says. "We said, 'Let's go ask the president to do this.' We were joking. We didn't think he'd give us the time of day."
They walked over to President Jerry Hudson's office and asked to see him, thinking they would be told to leave. Instead, his assistant let them in. "We told him the problem and how we thought the university should open a cafÃ© Friedenwald-Fishman says. "He said, 'Where would it be? How would it be funded? Who would work at it?' He said he'd meet with us again in two weeks, and that we should bring a proposal."
This was the start of many meetings with Hudson throughout their sophomore year. The two students researched other coffee shops, costs for espresso machines, ideas for a business plan -- then returned to Hudson, only to have him ask for more information. Bob Hawkinson, then a politics professor, helped with their research and later became the Bistro's first advisor. "I was very encouraging because I thought we needed such a place," Hawkinson says.
Finally, in the spring of 1986, Hudson offered the students $20,000 to open a shop, despite opposition from some other administrators. "I give Jerry Hudson full credit for staying with us and giving us the time to fully address his questions in an appropriate way," Donovan says. "That was one of the best learning experiences."
What followed was a hectic summer as the two hurried to build a shop to open in the fall. They transformed a room that had been used as the office for the Collegian -- the newspaper staff wasn't too happy at first about the move, Friedenwald-Fishman says -- into a nice, comfortable hangout. They arrived every morning to do renovation projects, then switched in the afternoon to testing food and coffee recipes. "It was an amazing summer," Donovan says. "We really were on a regimen of 16 hours a day where we worked on some component of the process -- developing training materials for new staff, making sure we were doing everything up to code, trying to befriend the county health inspector."
The community spirit was present from that very first summer, in the campus office staff who taste-tested their recipes and the person from the bookkeeping office who taught them how to keep records. In the maintenance worker who fixed their old equipment and even showed them how to make lemon custard, something he had done in his former days as a pastry chef. And it was in the numerous people who showed them where they could find free or cheap furniture -- the beginnings of the Bistro's tradition of relying on funky found objects. "The creation of the Bistro and the survival of its first year was a combination of President Hudson taking a risk on students, the hard work of the first student employees, and key faculty and staff members who helped us along the way," Friedenwald-Fishman says. "Every aspect of the Willamette community contributed to us starting the Bistro, which is a great lesson."
The shop hit a few bumps in the road as it tried to make its presence known, like when its new coffee mugs all were stolen within two weeks. (By this time, the Collegian staff had gone from grumbling to being supportive of the shop, and they wrote an editorial chastising students for stealing from a student-run business. Within a few days, the cups were returned.) But over time, it has become a profitable business. "We all worked hard to get integrated into the flow and dynamic of the campus community," Donovan says. "I think that was a big factor in our success."
The Bistro Spirit
"Do you want room for cream?" Donovan asked a student as he filled her cup with coffee.
It was one of many phrases Bistro alumni recall from their barista days. Donovan and Friedenwald-Fishman were among several who spent a busy day during the reunion making espresso and passing out free cookies. "I let Eric run the espresso machine because he does it at home all the time," Donovan says. "I told him if I blow up the machine, he can't blame me. I've just been trying to help people at the counter."
Chris Didway '89, another member of the original staff, also was behind the counter. She says it's gratifying to see the popularity of the business today. "It's the pulse of the campus. It's the hub where everything convenes. There was a void before, and Eric and John filled it."
Some of the food passed out that afternoon was created using recipes still in use from the Bistro's early days. That includes the chocolate and peanut butter Buzz Bar, named after beloved teacher and administrator Richard "Buzz" Yocom '49.
Each year, the new batch of employees leave their own mark on the place, whether by painting the walls new colors or naming the plants growing around the shop. Garett Brennan '01 left his mark musically. The Bistro already had hosted some open mic nights and concerts, but they weren't consistent events, and Brennan changed that. He recalls seeing DJs, singer-songwriters, jazz trios and magicians at the popular open mic nights. "The events gave the students an outlet to express themselves," Brennan says. "It was the one event that allowed everyone to try things they wouldn't normally do. All of a sudden, you'd see this huge football player trying to play a Dave Matthews song at open mic, and you would go, 'Wow, this is awesome.'"
Brennan's own band, Herschel Patch and the Gleakers, was a popular fixture at these events. "Late at night, toward the end of the open mic event, we would do a few songs -- primarily improv funk and gibberish storytelling. It was very loose, very unorganized." Brennan still plays music today, and his current folk Americana band, Garett Brennan & the EbGbs, played a return engagement at the reunion.
Students aren't the only ones who have connected with the Bistro, as evidenced by the faculty members who come in every morning for their wake-up drink or who hold small classes inside the shop. Faculty and staff also have been crucial to the Bistro's success, and often are among some of its most ardent supporters.
Hawkinson has his own wooden "endowed chair" with a plaque bearing his name in honor of his long-standing support. At one time, Hawkinson and President Lee Pelton -- back when they both still wore bowties -- held regular events called "Bowties at the Bistro." They would hang out at the shop and chat with anyone who was interested. "There were times when no one would show up, and there would be times when whole groups would come in to lobby us," Hawkinson says. "The whole football team came in one time because they wanted turf on the football field. They got it."
Customers who walk into the Bistro during the study days before final exams can sometimes find a variety of professors working behind the counter. In the early '90s, biology professors Sharon Rose and Grant Thorsett and chemistry professor David Goodney (once joined by chemistry professor Kiki Brink, who no longer works at Willamette) began putting in a shift so the shop could remain open when all the employees were studying. In recent years, exercise science faculty Stas Stavrianeas, Russ Cagle, Julianne Abendroth-Smith and Skip Kenitzer also started working a shift every semester.
Both groups really get into the process, donning their own aprons and nametags and playing their "oldies" music. "It takes us a little bit of time to get to know the drinks," Rose says, "and the cash register has always been our nemesis."
As for the long-standing tradition of employees as family, for many it has extended beyond graduation. Today Schroeder is general manager of BridgePort Brewing Company's brewpub in Portland and has employed several former Bistro managers. Friedenwald-Fishman and Donovan used their entrepreneurial skills to co-found a company called Metropolitan Group, one of the country's leading marketing firms for social issues.
Whenever the two founders are on campus, they always stop by to "spend as much money as we can." Sometimes the staff members recognize them and offer them free items. "We tell them, 'No, we have to pay. The Bistro needs to make money,'" Friedenwald-Fishman says.
His repeated visits have shown him that the core idea of the Bistro has worked -- the shop truly is its own community. "Whenever I walk into the Bistro, there are people studying together, tables of students and faculty interacting or people playing music. That sense of connection, that sense of community, is very, very much there."