Sarah Butts ’21 was a new hire at People’s Place Café in the spring of 2018, when she and co-worker Andrew Idarraga ’19 made iced coffee for the first time. “We used a concentrate that had twice as much caffeine as hot brewed coffee—only we brewed it wrong because the instructions weren’t clear,” she recalls during a meeting in Syracuse University’s historic Hendricks Chapel. “We were so hyped that we were running laps around the building.”
Butts remembers Idarraga, then president of the University Union, racing off to a caffeine-fueled media interview. “It’s one of my favorite memories of the place.”
Tucked away in the lower level of the 90-year-old chapel, People’s Place is one of the University’s hidden gems—a student-run coffee shop whose boho-esque vibe stands in contrast to the rest of campus. That the café isn’t required to order product from University Food Services gives it a degree of autonomy. Artisan baked goods and fair-trade coffees are as ubiquitous as the lively tunes and conversation.
People’s Place unites students from different cultures and traditions—the harmony is contagious. That’s what the University is all about.—Father Gerry Waterman
Impressive, considering the 50-year-old nonprofit doesn’t have a traditional business plan. “It’s a delicate dance between keeping prices down and operating in a financially responsible way,” says Alex Snow, the chapel’s assistant director of events and staff liaison to People’s Place. “We value people more than profit, so the true measure of success is our ability to foster a sense of community.”
Father Gerry Waterman (aka Father Gerry) agrees. “When I conduct office hours down the hall, I hear music, laughter and animated conversations coming from there,” says Waterman, who persuaded the café to start selling cold brew. “People’s Place unites students from different cultures and traditions—the harmony is contagious. That’s what the University is all about.”
Stirring Things Up
No one is more pleased by People’s Place’s success than founder Ted Finlayson-Schueler ’73, G’96. He traces the café’s origins to the spring of 1970, when Hendricks Chapel played a pivotal role in the student response to the Kent State massacre. At one point, the University Religious Council, made up of student leaders from all religious groups on campus, identified the need for a safe place for people to socialize. “In those days, you had to go to Marshall Street for a cup of coffee,” says Finlayson-Schueler, who majored in religion in the College of Arts and Sciences. “People’s Place grew out of that need and, by the fall of 1971, was operating Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.” The café’s mission-driven, semi-autonomous ethos was especially popular among students.
Finlayson-Schueler turned to his mother, a home economics teacher, for help. “She started making 10 to 12 dozen cookies a week from scratch,” he reminisces. “In a few years, we were selling 2,000 cookies a week. Chocolate chip, our biggest seller, cost only a nickel. Coffee also was a nickel, and donuts were 10 cents each.”
Low prices weren’t the only things on the menu. People’s Place also sponsored classes and activities in the nearby Noble Room, including yoga, poetry readings, bread making, weaving and macrame. “At any one time, there usually was a bridge game being played,” he says smiling.
Serving Diversity and Inclusion
People’s Place is not too different from what Finlayson-Schueler set down 50 years ago. Perhaps the biggest shift has been the recent demand for milk and dairy substitutes. Credit Sarah Butts for helping make the menu more diverse and inclusive, in response to concerns over allergens, hormones and unethical animal husbandry practices.
In addition to specialty foods from local vendors like Brooklyn Pickle and Geddes Bakery and Pastry Shop, People’s Place features organic, fair-trade java from Minneapolis-based Peace Coffee. Meanwhile, the local, woman-owned home bakery Fatcat has turned “Vegan Monday” into the busiest day of the week. “I like how our menu has evolved and diversified,” says Butts, noting that organic fermented fare, like kefir and kombucha, is also fashionable. “We provide food for the soul—and the stomach.”
The culture here is great. Everyone is lively, conversational and truly friendly. It’s where I hit my ‘reset’ button.—Joe Stoll, cartographer, Department of Geography and the Environment
Co-manager Thomas Harris ’22, in turn, marvels at the ubiquity of specialty drinks. “I get a lot of requests for iced hazelnut with almond milk,” says the senior illustration major, whose pen and ink drawings adorn the café’s walls. Other bestsellers are the caramel-infused “Holy Cow Coffee”; the chocolatey “Austin Powers”; the smooth-tasting “Rose Pink Latte”; and the exotic “Chai Guy,” a latte so popular that someone recently swiped its menu sign.
When asked if People’s Place has any trade secrets, former manager Chloe Crookall ’21 points to a flyer on the wall marked “Secret Menu.” “Most people don’t notice it, but that’s about as secretive as we get. All of our ingredients are listed right there.” During a recent meeting on campus, the local screen printer recalls her café tenure with impish delight. “People’s Place was a hassle-free job. Sometimes we’d make up drinks in our free time—you know, mix coffee with milk, tea and hot chocolate or brew coffee and tea together. It got pretty experimental.”
Community with a Splash of Nostalgia
Perched on a wooden pew bench in the chapel basement, Willow Keith ’24 grins at the prospect of a new school year. She and fellow manager Thomas Harris are overseeing the café’s yearlong 50th anniversary celebration, which includes an open house on Saturday, October 30, as part of Orange Central 2021. Concerts, art shows and poetry slams are also planned for later in the year, with plenty of swag and memorabilia to go around.
“We’re a tight crew,” says Keith, straining to be heard over the rush of lunchtime customers and a CD emanating from the café’s sound system. (The music in question is the title track from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s album Déjà Vu, which likely drew customers to this very spot 50 years ago.) “Sometimes when we’re not busy, we dance in the hallway and sing at the top of our lungs. It’s my favorite place on campus.”
Keith waxes rhapsodic on the social merits of coffee, which often take a backseat to the transactional nature of corporate chains. “The personal touch is important,” she says, noting the interior of People’s Place, which is festooned with student artwork, ironic bumper stickers and zany Polaroid selfies. “Even if we accidentally mess up your order or take longer than usual to make it, we want you to feel happy and welcomed, that you’re important to us.” The result, she adds, is a feeling of connectedness within a larger sense of community.
We’re a tight crew. Sometimes when we’re not busy, we dance in the hallway and sing at the top of our lungs. It’s my favorite place on campus.—Willow Keith ’24
Joe Stoll, a cartographer in the Department of Geography and the Environment, has been a regular for more than 20 years. He likes chatting up the staff, occasionally engaging them in a crossword puzzle or a game of catch in the quad. “The culture here is great. Everyone is lively, conversational and truly friendly,” says Stoll, who distributes homemade notepads to café employees during the holidays. “It’s where I hit my ‘reset’ button.”
Same goes for staffer Patti Ford ’94, who discovered People’s Place shortly after it opened. There’s no greater joy, she confesses, than biting into one of their cornbread muffins after a noontime jog. “When Syracuse reopened during the pandemic, one of the first places I went to was People’s Place,” says Ford, a physics budget manager in Arts and Sciences. “Tom [Harris] knew who I was, even with my mask on, and had a warm muffin waiting for me. I was so happy, I almost cried.”
Aligning Beliefs and Actions
One way to build community is to invest in it—something that People’s Place does in spades. Case in point: The café donates all tips to local nonprofits and charities, with guidance from the chapel’s Office of Engagement Programs. Past beneficiaries include We Rise Above the Streets, the Rescue Mission and PEACE Inc. “All this, and we still charge a dollar for coffee,” jokes Alex Snow, adding that the price hasn’t changed in eight years.
Sometimes, a small act of kindness makes a big difference. Not one to let food go to waste, Chloe Crookall used to deliver café leftovers to area homeless shelters. From time to time, she shared them with someone having a bad day. “You’d be amazed at how something as simple as coffee or donuts can lift a person’s spirits. That’s why our motto is ‘Caffeine for the Common Good’—and that’s pretty good.”