The Common Grounds coffee shop at Eastern Mennonite University has introduced precautions like a plexiglass barrier and increased sanitizing of pens, equipment, and surfaces. Barista Anisa Leonard works in the background, (Photos by Rachel Holderman)

‘One Indian Elephant for delivery, please:’ Common Grounds navigates COVID

Common Grounds, Eastern Mennonite University’s on-campus coffee shop, has a proud tradition of being student-led and operated. This year’s leadership team endeavored to maintain that independence by making huge adaptations for the pandemic.

“We faced a challenge with seeing how Common Grounds fit onto EMU’s campus,” said Sarah Rittenhouse, the shop’s marketing and events manager and a junior elementary education major. They prided themselves on offering “a space where people can come, especially commuters … during the middle of the day.” But could they still offer that safely?

It took the team two weeks at the beginning of the fall semester to adapt their physical space. General Manager Lauren Hartzler, a senior business administration and marketing major, said that included removing some seating, adding signage, installing a plexiglass shield around the coffee counter, and increasing cleaning. They’ve also had to drop popular group events, like Tuesday Trivia, that used to pack out the shop with caffeine-giddy students.

“We really needed that time to get all the new baristas on the same page,” Hartzler said. They hired 10 new student employees at the beginning of the semester to fill out the ranks of their 23-person staff.

Their very first customer this semester was Jonathan Swartz, director of residence life, student accountability, and restorative justice, ordering his usual drip coffee with half and half, hold the sugar. He visits Common Grounds two or three times a week, and not just for the coffee. 

“Really it’s also to see who’s around and have any quick conversations that I haven’t gotten the chance to have at other times,” Swartz said. “This has been especially important this COVID semester since the other opportunities to connect in person have been somewhat limited. Common Grounds has done an amazing job adjusting to new protocols and procedures for keeping a campus coffee shop running and keeping our veins coursing with caffeine.”

The Common Grounds leadership team, clockwise from top left: Lauren Hartzler, general manager; Emma Pirrung, products manager; Sarah Rittenhouse, marketing and events manager; and Ethan Beiler, fiancial manager.

At first, they only offered carry-out items, which Financial Manager Ethan Beiler, a senior mechanical engineering major, said dealt a major blow to their revenue. The shop only brought in $2,400 for the month of September, but thankfully, “it’s climbed … up to $4,600 for October.”

A big part of that increase is that patrons can now eat and sip in the shop provided they stay socially distanced. 

“I think one of our biggest assets is our physical space. People love to come in and study and have a drink,” Hartzler said.

Sophomore history and political science major Shannon Cooper agrees. She visits the shop “literally every day” to do homework and sip on an iced coffee or Sweet Africa tea steamer. 

“My favorite thing about Common Grounds is their homey-vibe environment. They have nice mood lighting, the wonderful smell of coffee, and comfy seating that I bounce between through the night,” Cooper said. “They’ve adapted so well, and I think they’re especially great at being cautious of when people leave so they can clean the tables, disinfecting the pens after every use, and ensuring that people are maintaining social distancing rules.”

Barista Isaac Alderfer ferries an order for delivery on foot.

Another contributor to their rebounding revenue is the new delivery system that Beiler built, which allows students, faculty, and staff to order Common Grounds drinks and snacks on Mondays from 8 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Baristas walk or bike the orders to the appropriate building, leave the ordered items in a designated crate by the door, and text the customer to let them know their milkshake, latte, bagel, or tea steamer has arrived. 

Don’t forget that, besides overhauling the shop’s operations, these four have had to navigate major shifts in their entire college experience – attending a variety of class formats and living, studying, working, and eating with constant caution.

“We just want to stay open and do this COVID thing well,” said Products Manager Emma Pirrung, a senior elementary education major. For them, doing it well means preserving their cornerstone of student sovereignty. And it appears that they’re succeeding.

“Now we’ve finally hit a cruise level,” Hartzler said. “I think that is our biggest accomplishment.”

Discussion on “‘One Indian Elephant for delivery, please:’ Common Grounds navigates COVID

  1. Common Grounds is a great “entry point” to the larger EMU campus community for Intensive English Program (IEP) students, who usually remain in their own IEP department on the first floor of Roselawn. In Common Grounds they can remain physically distant yet still be immersed in a part of campus life, not to mention hearing and engaging in English conversation! In addition, IEP students enjoy visiting the Margaret Martin Gehman Art Gallery next door to Common Grounds. Thank you for offering this space to the entire EMU community!

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