Generating a buzz, Underground Coffee Company continues to grow

Shop continues to rely on student volunteers, expands menu offerings beyond hot drinks

Contributing Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Underground Coffee Company, located in the basement of Faunce, recently expanded its menu offerings to include Knead doughnuts. At night, the space is home to a variety of late night entertainment offerings.

The Underground Coffee Company — the student-run, not-for-profit coffee shop located in the basement of Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center — initially grew out of a conversation between three members of the Brown-RISD Coffee Society in 2014. The shop now sells around 600 cups of coffee each week, wrote Kenta Nakagawa ’18, a member of the Underground Management Team, in an email to The Herald.

Two of the members, Katie Murphy ’16 and Yousef Hilmy ’16, enjoyed the student-run café at their prior institutions and were “surprised” when they transferred to Brown that the University did not have a similar space, Nakagawa said. “We wanted to open up this place for students who love coffee and visiting cafes … a student-run, community space where you can have coffee, you can hang out, you can study, you can just stay there,” he added.

The three shut down the Brown-RISD Coffee Society in full pursuit of setting up the coffee-shop. The Underground Coffee Company officially opened April 2015. Since Murphy and Hilmy’s graduation, a four person team has managed the shop.

“They’re an incredibly passionate group of students who really care about all the (day-to-day) operations of the Underground,” said Project Director of Brown Student Agencies Andrew Kutscher ’18. “They handle all of that pretty much independently. We come in, and we help them like a typical investor would to try to push them to do the best they can.”

In its early stages, The Underground was open at irregular hours and was limited to drip coffee and tea. Now open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, its current menu also offers iced coffee, espresso drinks and Knead doughnuts. The shop’s October performance demonstrated a 75 percent  increase in sales,  Kutscher said.

“It’s a whole different space, and, in that way, it’s almost not comparable,” said Ruby Miller-Gootnick ’18, a member of the management team.

The not-for-profit shop relies entirely on its staff of 25 volunteers. Students are trained by Nakagawa and Miller-Gootnick and are required to work at least two hours during the week, but most students exceed that and even spend their free-time in the Underground, Miller-Gootnick said.

“People who we talk to and interview say that they’re really looking to (build) the kind of community that the Underground wants,” said Eli Makovetsky ’19, another member of the management team. Last spring, the team sorted through nearly 50 applications for nine available spots. “They’re dedicated to seeing the space become something.”

The Underground management team stresses the importance of affordability and quality. Since the shop reserves its space through the University, it does not pay for “rent, water or electricity,” according to Nakagawa.

The main costs of the shop are the cups and the high-quality coffee beans sourced from George Howell Coffee in Boston. According to Miller-Gootnick, this allows for “the best coffee on campus” to be purchased for less than $2.

The Underground also looks for opportunities to showcase student talent and interests, like the stand-up show it hosted Saturday. “We were looking for a focal point where we could incorporate student art and host events in a place that actually felt like we were engaging with the students as much as providing a service,” Makovetsky said.

The management team hopes to add more furniture and introduce seasonal special drinks in the future.

“This is really the first semester where I feel like so many things are happening in rapid succession that we tell something to the staff and everybody just lights up,” Makovetsky said.

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