Student businesses fight to reopen on unfamiliar grounds

“It feels like the administration doesn’t try to understand what a student cooperative is”

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Judith Gibson-Okunieff / Daily Collegian

By Lucas Ruud, Collegian Staff

Student businesses are working tirelessly to get back on their feet after dealing with COVID-19, financial issues and unclear direction from the University of Massachusetts administration.

Student businesses and cooperatives are entirely managed by students with near complete autonomy over their decisions. After being inactive and unable to generate revenue for a year due to COVID, leaders of these businesses, excited to reopen, say policy changes, lack of communication by the University and loss of trained staff have delayed their openings and continue to impede their recoveries. Finances are tight and some feel they have lost control over their businesses.

“We all opened at least a month late… everything changed, and we weren’t communicated about that,” said Barkha Bhandari, the co-manager of People’s Market and the Student Trustee of the Student Government Association. People’s Market was given space in the new Student Union alongside Earthfoods Café, UMass Bike Co-op, and Campus Design and Copy, which came with unforeseen issues.

“The main discrepancies have been about who has autonomy of the space,” said Elena Babson, a senior co-manager of the vegan and vegetarian restaurant Earthfoods. “We had very little communication about what the space would look like up until we moved in.”

Earthfoods, People’s Market, and the Bike Co-op all reported being given minimal input in what their space would look like when the new Student Union was being originally designed.

“There’s a lot of arbitrary rules,” Bhandari said. New Student Union policy restricts how businesses can decorate their space and install necessary signs like menus and traffic-flow indicators.

Earthfoods was told by Student Union administrators that they couldn’t hang their prices on the wall, according to Babson. When she contested the decision, the administrators did arrange for the prices to be “professionally hung,” but the precedent was set that businesses do not have the same level of autonomy that they did in their previous locations.

“It felt like we had to build a bike shop,” said Max Siegfried, a senior co-manager of the Bike Co-op. Their inventory and supplies were moved from their temporary location in Bartlett to their new shop in the Student Union by the University, but the Co-op had to organize their shop without knowledge of the new regulations that came with the new Student Union.

“That’s the downside of being a student-run business, you would expect the student side would hold a lot more weight with administration,” said Dalya Wambui, a sophomore co-manager of the Bike Co-op.

“As opposed to reaching out once, I have to send four emails,” said Nicholas Bucchianeri, a senior co-manager of Sweets and More, the late-night snack-focused cooperative located in Field Hall, Orchard Hill. “There’s such a long chain of communication for anything to get done.”

While he didn’t experience the Student-Union-specific issues that other businesses did, Sweets and More struggled with the administration and significant information gaps.

“The first issue we dealt with was losing a lot of veteran co-managers —we lost a lot of knowledge,” Bucchianeri said. “We had to reinvent how we train… you don’t want more than a 1:1 ratio of experienced co-manager to new hire.”

Bucchianeri also reported issues with reopening due to slow maintenance response time and appliances that were broken due to extended inactivity.

“We couldn’t reopen because facilities took weeks to check for mice in the store, which we didn’t have,” Bucchianeri said,  “one of the fridges and three of the freezers were broken… maintenance was really good about helping us fix two of the freezers though.”

Unfortunately, Sweets and More was not the only business affected by faulty equipment and maintenance requirements, as Greeno Sub Shop has not yet opened due to finance, logistic, and information problems.

“Greeno had to buy another fridge, an oven, and because of the shutdown from COVID, we had to take out a loan that we’re still trying to pay,” said Chiara Jacobson, a junior co-manager of the Greeno Sub Shop, located in Greenough Hall, Central.

Greeno is currently in a financial deficit and cannot open because of  to confusion with its food provider. Greeno had to reestablish connections with its food provider to purchase food, as the contact they previously had was no longer active — significantly delaying their opening. Additionally, UMass’ transition from Box to OneDrive, which was a transfer in how university documents were stored, caused a large information gap for Greeno.

“When the University transitioned from Box to OneDrive, we had moved all the documents to Drive. Even though it was a shared drive, any document [the previous co-manager] made got deleted,” Jacobson said. As a result, Greeno had to make efforts to recover and recreate important documents, costing them time that they could not afford.

“Money’s super tight and we needed that revenue,” said Babson. Earthfoods had similar equipment issues, as University staff “lost the manuals for everything in the kitchen” and took longer than promised to fix a necessary gas line. These delays set Earthfoods back at least a week towards their opening.

The student businesses are optimistic about the future and hope that communication with administration can improve.

“It might feel new, but it’s a reclamation of the old space,” Wambui said. “It’ll be the Bike Co-op 2.0.”

“The new space is really really beautiful and I love the kitchen… but our space isn’t handicap accessible and I would like to see that change,” Babson said. “I would love to see more communication between the Student Union managers and us… it’s like we’re trying to stay out of each other’s way,” she added.

“The relationship that administration has with students is one where I rarely see that administration makes an effort. It feels like the administration doesn’t try to understand what a student cooperative is about,” Bhandari said. “We’re adaptable, we want to create a space for students to be comfortable, and we’re going to do that no matter what.”

The University did not respond when asked to comment on student claims.

Lucas Ruud can be reached at [email protected]