The Common Grounds coffeehouse management team includes (from left) Maddie Gish, Stephanie Anders, Sammy Kauffman, Ryan Thomas and Sol Brenneman with Rachel Roth Sawatzky, director of student programs. (Photos by Andrew Strack)

Common Grounds coffeehouse student-managers find their niche, grow management skills

The weekly management meeting.

“We need to make sure they realize that this is dangerous,” says senior Stephanie Anders, before everyone breaks into laughter. The peril in question is a new acquisition at Eastern Mennonite University’s Common Grounds Coffeehouse: a whipped cream canister powered by pressurized nitrous oxide. Much like carbon dioxide makes soda, the nitrous oxide is used to aerate fresh cream to create the drink topping on the fly.

Gathered for their weekly meeting, the managers discuss how to ensure baristas clean the canister without exploding it. Laptops out, they pound down notes and send emails amidst the laughter and problem solving. It is decided that Sol Brenneman, the products and marketing manager, will conduct training sessions with each barista.

Rachel Roth Sawatzky, director of student programs, offers guidance and support, but the five students here are the ones brainstorming and implementing ideas. Each spends between 10 and 20 hours per week in their roles making Common Grounds tick. Many didn’t expect to find themselves in leadership positions.

“It often takes a nudge” for the right people to step up to the challenge, says Roth Sawatzky. Thanks to that nudge, new products, initiatives, projects and events are constantly expanding the coffeeshop’s repertoire.

“As Common Grounds is truly a student-run small business, it has always had students in key operations and leadership roles,” says Roth Sawatzky. “It is the staff who bring the space to life, with their warmth, energy and care.” In addition to the five managers, 24 students work as baristas.

Maddie Gish – Operations Manager

Maddie Gish, operations manager.
  • Senior with majors in Spanish and sociology.
  • Responsibilities: hiring, barista evaluation, training, scheduling, troubleshooting, team guidance.
  • Common Grounds experience prior to serving as a manager: two semesters as a barista, “and I loved that!”

When former operations manager Abby Dwyer asked if she’d consider the position, Gish balked. “I started out college as a really shy person, and I never thought I’d be a leader … it’s been really fun to see myself grow so much.”

One day I received a frantic call from a barista, “the water won’t turn off, it’s spewing everywhere!” As operations manager, my role encompasses problem solving and literally fixing anything that might break. I’ve never been much of a “fixer,” but I walked in that shop determined to not leave until the water was fixed. I unscrewed the handles, used a wrench to tighten and right the part which had been overly aggressively used, and stopped the water from flowing. Then, I reassembled it. That experience left me so giddy because I had shown not just myself my unrealized capabilities, but also my barista. Together we learned that you don’t need to be prepared for every situation, you just need to try your best and use your existing skills.

Notable initiatives this year: Developing and implementing a campus-wide customer survey (skills learned in sociology courses). In response, Common Grounds expanded their hours and products. Gish also solicited department donations to offer free coffee to students during finals week last semester, and is working to create a promotional video and staff training video.

Stephanie Anders – Events and Marketing Manager

Stephanie Anders, events and marketing manager.
  • Senior majoring in biology.
  • Responsibilities: Art curation, event booking and promotion, sound and light tech.
  • Common Grounds experience prior to serving as a manager: One semester as a barista.

“Common Grounds was really my only connection with people outside of classes,” says Anders, who transferred to EMU from Christopher Newport University.

After I started working there, I began to feel like I had a space to call my own. I did the majority of my homework there, and even took a few naps in between classes. A lot of campus was and is still unfamiliar to me because my classes have been concentrated in the Suter Science Center, but Common Grounds gave me a place where I feel completely comfortable. Now, part of my job is to pass that on – through events we have, art we display, and the atmosphere we strive to create.

In one week, Anders might organize a Black Student Union event, chapel gathering, honors capstone presentation, concert, art show opening and Preparatory Music rendezvous.

Notable initiatives this year: Working with the 30-person staff to rewrite the business’ mission and vision statements to reflect a modern sustainability and community focus. She’s also introducing new events such as bingo nights, “Steal a Mug” and karaoke.

Sammy Kauffman – Catering Manager

Sammy Kauffman, catering manager.
  • Junior majoring in biology, pre-medicine track.
  • Responsibilities: Event food and drink catering, EMU department coffee grinding and delivery, managing catering accounts.
  • Common Grounds experience prior to serving as a manager: Three semesters as a barista.

With plans to apply to medical school, Kauffman didn’t think she’d have time to be a manager. However, the flexible hours of her particular role helped make the position feasible.

“I like that Common Grounds kind of forces me to do something non-academic that is still productive,” says Kauffman.

Common Grounds itself is relaxing, and my job in particular relaxes me because I get to work with food and kind of flex my organizational muscles outside of academics. I also really enjoy working with our management team and the barista.

Kauffman comes up with food and drink offerings for catered events, such as the make-your-own coffee float options at the April 7 Presidential Inauguration Gala.

Notable initiatives this year: Redesigning and repricing the catering menu. She’s also organizing late-night food events to offer students food from local restaurants, with possible delivery available to dorm rooms, and tracking catering profits to determine which services are most beneficial to the shop.

Sol Brenneman – Products and Marketing Manager

Sol Brenneman, products and marketing manager.
  • Sophomore majoring in history.
  • Responsibilities: Inventory, ordering, initiating and maintaining local supplier relationships.
  • Common Grounds experience prior to serving as a manager: None.

“Honestly the only things I know how to do are make coffee and tea,” jokes Brenneman – his managerial skills play out behind the espresso machine scenes with supplier networking and organization. Sol handles 12 key vendor relationships and the related logistics for every product that Common Grounds offers to the public.

Notable initiative this year: Evaluating and improving the inventory system. Brenneman has been establishing amounts of products and ingredients to keep on hand, and has been tracking how quickly they tend to run out, “converting inventory management to a more reflexive and intuitive model,” says Roth Sawatzky. He has also introduced Mr. J’s sandwiches and increased local ingredient suppliers.

Ryan Thomas – Financial Manager

Ryan Thomas, financial manager.
  • Senior majoring in accounting and economics.
  • Responsibilities: Sales and costs tracking, reporting, and forecasting; funding managing; banking.
  • Common Grounds experience prior to serving as a manager: None.

Thomas, a member of the soccer team, rarely hung out in Common Grounds before working there. “I thought it was the hippie place … but I am a coffee fan,” he explains. The previous financial manager, Breanna Kauffman, tapped him on the shoulder to consider the job. Thomas wanted professional experience and decided the position “would definitely take me out of my comfort zone!”

At first I thought I would be doing the bookkeeping and just basic accounting skills. However, the job has been more than that; I have and will be completing projects that will hopefully make Common Grounds a better place to come to and also a more sustainable business. These projects have sharpened my accounting skills, but also given me experience coming up with ideas on how to push a business forward, then implementing them, and then being willing to go back and see if the projects worked.

Notable initiatives this year: Cost analysis and price alterations. “What I’ve tried to aim for is to be sustainable financially,” says Thomas. Currently, Common Grounds receives a portion of its labor budget from the Student Government Association, but is working towards increasing profits. Thomas has also been working on more efficient systems for receiving gift cards and charging purchases to campus departments.

Discussion on “Common Grounds coffeehouse student-managers find their niche, grow management skills

  1. Sure sounds like you’re a great team running a successful campus business.
    I’m especially proud of my grandaughter, Maddie!!


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