Green Roots Cafe, a new student-run restaurant, is set to open later this month with an anticipated grand opening date between Jan. 26 and Jan. 30.
The cafe will be located in the basement of Smith Memorial Student Union in the lounge space that previously housed Food For Thought Cafe. It will be one of a handful of exclusively vegan and vegetarian options on campus. The cafe will focus on providing local and sustainable food options for the Portland State community.
The lounge space has been vacant since Spring 2014, when the student-run Food For Thought Cafe closed abruptly. Twenty-five students lost their jobs in the closure.
FFT’s closure was mainly the result of monetary malpractices and a $102,599 deficit that was discovered last spring. According to a 2013 press release from Student Activities & Leadership, the deficit was projected to grow to $170,000 if FFT had remained open. Funding for FFT came from Student Fees, a $218 fee PSU students pay each term.
Following an investigation last March, FFT was charged with corruption, misappropriation of state assets, financial statement fraud, waste, theft and several other violations of conduct, according to Assistant Dean of Student Life and Director of Conduct & Community Standards Domanic Thomas.
Thomas noted that while members of the FFT collective were well-intentioned, many ideals brought into running the cafe might have led to its financial demise.
For example, FFT featured a Trust Bucket where customers would leave money for their coffee without any official monitoring. The resulting profit, rather than going back into the till, would then be distributed evenly between members of the FFT collective. The consequence was a loss in profit and a violation of the use of state funds.
Additionally, coins in the till were sometimes redistributed among collective members as tips. “One of the runs was approximately $65 worth of coins, and so you have that and they redistributed it to the 25 employees. It’s a couple dollars to each employee, but 10 percent is already going to Coinstar,” Thomas said. He added that this practice was not only theft, but wasteful.
“The accounting practices were not, by any standard, acceptable…the training and hiring of individuals, including in accounting, was problematic…I fully expected to have a junior accounting major as the accountant, and that wasn’t the case,” Thomas said.
Thomas did not charge any individual student for the sanctions incurred because of the non-hierarchical model by which FFT was run. Thomas emphasized that there was no way to have a student-run cafe in the SMSU space without starting over completely.
Earlier this year, the Student Fee Committee approved a business plan for a student-run cafe to re-occupy the space in Smith.
Food for Thought Advisory Board
In June 2014, PSU Student Operated Services formed an advisory board to oversee the future of the cafe.
Angela Hamilton, coordinator of student-operated services, and student Hayden Leach were co-chairs for the FFT advisory board. Haley White, a former member of FFT collective, was also on the board. White is no longer involved with the advisory board or Green Roots Cafe.
“All of the problems that were presented could have been fixed. Maybe through restructuring. A lot of the stuff that was discussed on the advisory board really would have been really good solutions to just keep [FFT] running,” White said.
Interested in preserving the non-hierarchical model of FFT, White was told that the new cafe would be run as a “collective hybrid.” Later, White received an email from Leach and Hamilton explaining that the new cafe would run with a managerial system.
“There’s definitely been a lot of fallout; divisions have been made because of this,” Leach said. “They attempted to run the cafe as a collective, which, while noble in purpose, when you work in an institution as hierarchical as PSU, you can’t have non-hierarchy at this level.”
About three months prior to the closure of FFT, the cafe’s budget for the 2014–15 school year was approved. White suggested that the failure to spot the deficit before approving the new budget showed a lack of oversight among the PSU organizations involved in budget management.
To avoid similar issues at Green Roots Cafe, several guidelines have been established. If the cafe goes into any sort of deficit, it will be closed, according to Hamilton.
“[The cafe] is going to rely on those customers of FFT to come back. It’s going to rely on proper marketing and advertising,” Leach said.
If Green Roots were to close, the space would then be rented out to a vendor. Leach said a 15 percent budget cut for SMSU this year could make it harder for the cafe to stay afloat if its profits are low.
The new managerial system was introduced in response to several state and university laws. “I want to say that’s the big difference,” Leach said.
“The number-one thing is protection and preservation of community…I just don’t want anyone to violate the state use of monies because it has reverberating effects that students don’t always understand,” Thomas said.
Leach and white gave differing accounts of food sourcing while FFT was open.
“A common misconception was that [FFT] was all about local sourcing, using local producers and growers to get their food. That actually wasn’t the case. For the past few years the cafe had been using Sysco, which doesn’t actually use local sources,” Leach said.
Contrastingly, White reported that FFT relied mostly on local companies and Earthly Gourmet for dried goods. The cafe used sustainable, organic and local sourcing to manifest political beliefs.
“At Food For Thought, at least what I got and for everyone else, the sustainability aspect of the cafe was secondary to the political,” White said.
“As a state institution, you can’t use student fees or tax dollars—any revenue that is brought in from the university, you can’t use for political action. You can’t use resources: pens, paper, space, for political use. If that was the case, that can’t be anymore,” Leach said.
The environment of FFT, when it was open, has also been cause for debate.
“During spring term there were several public forums held discussing the cafe. A lot of students came forward expressing that there were bouts of racism, classism and that students generally—specifically students of color—did not feel safe here and that was a toxic environment, something that SALP as an institution, as well as PSU, doesn’t support,” Leach said.
Green Roots front-of-house manager Randy Black was once a customer at FFT and did not share Leach’s concerns about the environment at FFT. “The atmosphere that they had, being a space that was really open where we could talk, was a place that was different from everything upstairs. That’s something that we’re really hoping for also,” Black said.
Quarrel over cafes brews online
Both FFT’s and Green Roots’ Facebook pages have become home to debates about the reasons behind FFT’s closure and the subsequent restructuring and renaming of the business.
In a Facebook comment on FFT’s page, White described Green Roots as a “Depoliticized knockoff of what used to be a radical community space on campus. But at least they still compost.”
On Jan. 8, the FFT Facebook page posted a status update that read, “Not many folks remember or know this but when [FFT] began it had managers/bosses and a tiered pay scale and hierarchal decision making just like our new replacement. One day after much organizing the workers went on (or threatened to, history is a little fuzzy) strike against their managers and it became the non hierarchal workers collective we remember so fondly.”
In response to this post, Earl Meinenger wrote, “Wow. This is a lie. As someone who was on the board that voted to convert FFT to an employee run cooperative, please don’t make up stories of strike to align with your worldview. There was never a strike or threat of one. Just open honest dialogue between the board, managers, and employees that evolved into the decision to dissolve the volunteer board and pass the responsibility for running the cafe to the employees.”
The FFT Facebook page posted another status update on Dec. 9 that read, “Before you rejoice about the new vegan organic cafe on campus, let it be known that members of the [Green Roots] cafe advisory board include employees of Burgerville and Aramark.”
“The Aramark part is absolutely not true,” Hamilton said.
One member of the Green Roots advisory board is a director at Burgerville, which Hamilton said is one of the most sustainable restaurant chains in Oregon. He had to apply like everyone else but, Hamilton said, having him on the board made sense.
“We haven’t even met him yet, but he was one of the people on the board that put the business plan together. He basically gave the group a lot of insight on sourcing and, you know, different ideas on how to put a business plan together,” said Green Roots business manager Antonio Matic.
At the request of FFT’s Facebook pages the Green Roots Facebook page was hit with a barrage of one-star reviews, from students and community members angry over the closure of FFT and the loss of a political space on campus. One review, written by Misha Brandon Speck, read, “[T]his place shits [sic] because it was created by shit-canning an entire program and firing a staff of 25-odd folks with little notice and no offer of re-structuring from PSU admins.”
Jess Tranfo, back of house manager at Green Roots, said that none of the cafe’s employees intended to replace FFT.
“I had the opportunity to be part of something cool, new on campus, in my mind. I think that we’re trying our best to progress that way,” Tranfo said.
Plans for Green Roots
Originally set to open Jan. 5, Green Roots ran into last-minute issues with their point of sale system.
“We had to ask the SFC for potential funding. Then we had to go shopping for muliple options,” Leach said. He explained several delays in the process of implementing a POS system.
“So much of this is outside the control of students, of the advisor, of even the director of the department that oversees this,” Leach said.
Leach and Matic presented before the SFC on Jan. 8 to explain the issues.
“Any minor problem will make us be jumpy,” said SFC member Juan Rueda. No repercussions resulted from the Jan. 8 presentation, but the SFC expressed a desire for more thorough communication between SFC and the cafe.
The Green Roots space has a piano that is free to use, and they plan to feature student art and eventually host on-campus events, according to the three managers. There is a children’s corner in the back of the lounge space already stocked with books and toys for students’ children.
Tranfo said the plan is for nothing on the menu to cost more than $5.25 and the cafe will accept PSU dining dollars.
“Every company that I’m using is locally or regionally owned,” Tranfo said. Tranfo is responsible for sourcing ingredients used to make dishes like the Veggie Deluxe sandwich and the Eco Bowl. Tranfo looks to Charlie’s Produce, a regionally owned company, for most of Green Root’s produce. Fifty to seventy-five percent of the cafe’s ingredients are organic.
“There’s a very fine line to walk between what’s affordable and what’s idealistic. If we think of our food as being local, organic, sustainable, you know, of those three criteria, I’m trying to hit at least two with every vendor that we have. If not, all three,” Tranfo said.
Ingredients in salads and sandwiches are apt to change according to what is seasonal. “It’s a little trickier right now because it’s winter time and we’re in the Northwest, but we’re definitely not getting greenhouse-grown peppers from Southern Mexico. I’m not ordering things from Food Services of America, that kind of thing,” Tranfo said.
Green Roots will have Columbia Gorge juices and smoothies. They will offer three varieties of SOMA Kombucha on tap. The cafe will also be offering a wide variety of coffee drinks and are still in the process of securing a local, organic coffee vendor.
To reduce costs, many foods at the cafe will be house-made, including dressings and hummus. “I’m not grinding my own flour or making my own tofu, but that’s about where it ends, I think,” Tranfo said.
All three managers of Green Roots Cafe are students. “Everyone on staff is a student, that’s one of the requirements,” Black said. The Green Roots Cafe currently has a staff of about 19 employees.
“We have diversity on the skill level. We’ve got some people that are very skilled who’re going to be great mentors, I think, and some people who have great personalities and work ethics, who I think are going to be really great workers,” Black said.
Tranfo noted that the gender gap that usually exists in a restaurant kitchen setting is nonexistent. While oftentimes a restaurant may have a mostly male cook-staff, Green Roots’ staff ratio is more diversified.
“We come up with the ideas, we collectively wrote the menu and have figured out the drinks, and have hired the staff and at the end of the day. [Hamilton’s] overseeing things, but I feel like we’ve made the majority of the decisions. We’re part of the university because we’re students, but it’s not like the university has dictated, necessarily, what we’ve been doing. I think that’s important, to me at least, that Green Roots is for students, by students,” Tranfo said.
The Vanguard interviews the managers and employees behind Green Roots Cafe: