The Underground reopened Feb. 7 to welcome students back for the spring 2022 semester while introducing some new changes. Located in the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center, the student-operated coffee shop aims to offer cheaper coffee and tea alternatives to other storefronts on College Hill.
While the Underground was closed throughout 2020 and much of 2021, it reopened in the middle of the fall semester. Still, it has taken some time for the cafe to “get back on its feet,” manager Chloe Khosrowshahi ’22.5 said.
While the cafe spent more money than it brought in last semester, managers are “optimistic” that it will return to pre-pandemic revenue levels this semester.
“We have a lot of (cash) reserves, so thankfully we have had that as kind of a safety net,” Khosrowshahi said.
To increase revenue for this semester, the Underground has introduced new initiatives and made changes to their food service operations, manager Janey Litvin ’22 and Khosrowshahi said.
The most significant change is a switch in the coffee itself: after supplying from George Howell Coffee in Newton, Massachusetts since its opening, the Underground now gets its beans from Bolt Coffee, a local establishment with shops both on College Hill and Downtown Providence.
“They (have) really high quality, locally roasted beans, and we’re trying to support other small businesses through sourcing our products through them,” Khosrowshahi said.
The Underground and Bolt had a previously established relationship: In the past, an employee from Bolt would help with repairs on the Underground’s machines, which are showing “signs of wear” after being purchased in 2015.
Bolt suggested The Underground begin using their beans in exchange for free repairs and other service work.
“It’s a mutually beneficial partnership,” Khosrowshahi said.
The Underground employees recently took a trip to Bolt Coffee for supplemental training to learn techniques such as milk frothing.
The Underground has also introduced chai concentrate this semester to use in making chai lattes, which Litvin expects will be “super popular.”
Besides new beans and drinks, the shop also hired two new baristas at the end of the fall 2021 semester who really “embody what the Underground is all about,” Khosrowshahi said.
The hiring process was “insanely competitive,” with 90 applicants for just two spots, Litvin said.
“It was a lot to sort through so many wonderful, qualified applicants,” she added.
Hiring takes place every semester, and the amount of spots that open depends on the number of staff members who graduate each year. Positions are posted on Workday, and students can then apply through the platform.
“It was a super smooth hiring process,” Khosrowshahi said.
Training for baristas consists of coming in for a few hours on a weekend to get familiar with the space, they added. The new baristas are also taught how to pull an espresso shot and make other drinks.
“Most of the training really occurs on the job. A lot of stuff is picked up when you’re working with your co-barista,” Litvin said, explaining that a pair of baristas are behind the counter every shift.
In response to rising inflation rates across the country — and in an attempt to break even this semester — the Underground also raised its prices for the first time this semester, all by less than a dollar.
Still, Litvin said that the shop remains cheaper than its competition.
The relationship between the Underground and the University has been “wonderful” under the guidance of Marissa Fortney, assistant director of the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center and Student Activities Office, Litvin added.
“She’s been very respectful of the way we operate, but also is super willing to help us with some new initiatives that we’re hoping to implement this semester,” Litvin said.
One of these new initiatives is opening the shop on Saturdays. Khosrowshahi also said that the shop hopes to begin showcasing local Providence food vendors during these weekend hours and incorporating board games into the space. Student art may also be displayed on the walls of the Underground in the near future.
“We’ve had so many people express a desire for (student art), so we’re just trying to figure out the parameters (for that),” Khosrowshahi said.
Additionally, Khosrowshahi has been working with the organization End Overdose, which provides narcan and fentanyl testing strips that the Underground now offers for free at its counter — a “pilot program right now,” Khosrowshahi said.
Students said they utilize the space to study and socialize with friends. Jackie Benjes ’24, who visited the Underground for the first time on her tour of Brown in high school, said the Underground has “very good vibes” and “it’s really fun to see students working together.”
But Benjes “mostly goes there to chat” and not to work, since it “gets pretty loud.”
Evie Calhoon ’24, who also first saw the Underground before coming to Brown, said she goes to the Underground for its tea.
“One of my teammates told me about the chamomile and it’s the best,” she said.
Both managers added that they are “excited” about moving forward this semester and improving what Calhoon described as the “cool vibe” that the Underground aims to provide the student body.