Gristmill Coffeehouse Closes Its Doors

Peter Wojtechko, Jr.
Staff Writer

The Gristmill Coffeehouse, located within the Saint Vincent Gristmill on Beatty County Road behind the monastery, celebrated its final day on August 3 by serving free coffee drinks all day, with many students, alumni and locals visiting for the final time. The decision to close the coffeehouse was made by Director of the Gristmill Committee and Executive Vice President of the College Fr. Paul Taylor, O.S.B., following years of financial difficulty for the coffeehouse.

“I loved the coffeehouse,” said Fr. Taylor, whose first engagement with the Gristmill was making flour as a novice. He eventually became the miller and then the director in the mid-nineties before the renovated Gristmill opened in 1999.  He saw the Gristmill through its addition of the coffeehouse and opening in January 2005 and said he made the decision to close the Gristmill coffeehouse early this summer, after years of it being unable to support itself financially.

“What made closing the coffeehouse so painful is that it was such a good thing,” Fr. Taylor said, describing the shop’s closing a “purely business decision.” Despite loyal student and local patrons, the volume of customers and the amount of income was unable to support the coffeehouse.

Although the first two years of deficit were acceptable as start-up years, Fr. Taylor said that the coffeehouse was never consistently able to budget out evenly, despite some improvements and near-successes. The Gristmill Coffeehouse needed to make $180 per day in order to break even, but it usually made between $75 and $90 per day—sometimes reaching closer to $150 dollars, sometimes dropping below even the $75 mark. The shop was rarely able to meet even the expenses of paying the work-study student employees, although they were paid nonetheless.

“If it weren’t for our monastery subsidizing it for all these years,” Fr. Taylor said, “it would have closed years ago.” The archabbey, which operates the entire Gristmill separate from the college, continued to absorb the loss “because it was a project that we had all hoped would take off and become a viable entity on its own.” However, the deficit “just kept getting bigger.” According to Fr. Taylor, “[the coffeehouse] as a business model just couldn’t make it,” and he “could no longer justify the increased subsidy every year by the monastery.”

Fr. Taylor attributes, in part, the insufficient number of clients to the out-of-the-way “destination point” location of the mill. Some students found the coffeehouse difficult to trek to by foot, as opposed to a location with much walk-by traffic from students and Latrobe locals.

Another reason for not breaking even was that, unlike the general store and mill within the Gristmill, the coffeehouse paid students in work-study positions rather than relying on volunteers and the monks of the abbey. Fr. Taylor said that this, along with the expenses of the coffee and other materials, simply could not be afforded. He added that the general store and mill also had a more established customer base than the coffeehouse.

Special events and other attempts to boost awareness and attendance did not yield much benefit and were sometimes more expensive than they were worth. Other ideas, such as incorporating a Flex pay system, seemed unfeasible. The shop’s hours were changed in the spring of last year from being open eight hours each day to just four, in order to cut back on expenses.

Junior Evan Hrobak visited the Gristmill Coffeehouse about three times per week and said that it sold “simply the best coffee you could find on campus.” He said he felt that, while its location did not help the coffeehouse economically, “it was out of the way enough on campus that you could avoid any disruptions if you wanted to.”

He added that the small amount of local and student patrons made it a more relaxed alternative to the library as a place for study and homework—especially while working on long, stressful essays. “It had a really cool aesthetic, intellectual vibe to it,” Hrobak said. “I wrote a lot of papers there, read a lot of books there.”

Senior Tom Cocchi, who worked as a barista at the coffeehouse since last year, said, “You could always tell when there was a big week for tests, because more people came down during then to study.”

“I think what’s kind of ironic about that,” Cocchi said, “is if we had had a lot of better business, it might have lost part of that atmosphere.” If many people were running in and out just to get coffee, “it might have hurt some of that atmosphere that was so nice about it. What was so nice about it was also probably what made it not very successful, in a business sense.”

The coffee beans once used in the coffeehouse are now available in the Gristmill general store and the bookstore, while the Barista and The Shack in the Carey Center continue to brew coffee from the same provider as the Gristmill Coffeehouse—albeit with different equipment. The Barista also offers a representative selection of the Gristmill’s warm drinks.

While ideas have been discussed, Fr. Taylor said that a new use for the coffeehouse space has not yet been decided. The other entities within the Gristmill continue to operate; new products such as grits are now available from the General Store, a touring museum curator was hired last year for the museum and the patio overlooking the wetlands is in the process of being refinished.

The mill of the Gristmill has been running since October 1854 when Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B. established it to promote the community’s self-sufficiency. More sections were added to the Gristmill, and it grew to its current size in 1883. The building’s renovation was completed by 1999, when a general store was opened within it. Former business major Francisco Hermo worked alongside Fr. Taylor to design the coffeehouse within the Gristmill and establish its business plan, becoming its first manager when it opened in 2005.

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