Debt Threatens Student Cafe
Paradox, Reed’s independent student-run Cafe, is currently operating at an approximate $15,000 deficit, which is expected to increase to $20,000 by the end of the spring semester. If Paradox cannot break even by the end of the semester, it is not clear whether it will be able to remain open.
The cafe, which first opened in 1985, has run on a deficit since at least 2014. According to a Letter to the Editor by Student Senate and Treasury, “The deficit had previously been backfilled by the Business Office (meaning that Paradox’s suppliers, workers, and managers have been getting paid, but the shops haven’t made back all the money that the College has paid out),”
Cyana Ruiz, Paradox’s Supply Manager, wrote that “Up until fall 2021 our deficit fluctuated between $3,000 and $7,000.” During the Fall of 2021, Paradox accrued about $7,000 in additional debt, doubling the deficit to approximately $16,000.
“While the administration would usually support Paradox despite its debt, reduced donations and cash flow as a whole have left the school with tighter finances,” wrote Senate in their letter. “As a result, they no longer feel that Reed can accommodate Paradox’s debt, and they have denied backfilling the larger debt this semester.”
According to Ruiz, “Paradox has accrued about $7k in debt every semester since COVID.” Both Ruiz and Lilia Noger-Onstott, Paradox’s Manager, cited recent increases to the minimum wage as one of the main reasons for the ballooning of the deficit. Wrote Ruiz, “From the analysis that I have done it seems like our accrued deficit each month is about equal to the wages from one pay period.”
Both managers also pointed to complications of COVID-19. According to Noger-Onstott, “Paradox was closed during the first semester of the 2020-21 academic year, and then we only had the drive through window open during spring of 2021. The cafe was shut down improperly because of covid, and since then there have been a lot of maintenance issues that have required quite a bit of money to fix.” Ruiz also noted that Paradox had to hire and train an entirely new staff for Olde Paradox (in the Student Union) in Fall of 2021, and for Nu Paradox (In the bio building) only recently.
The Paradox does receive a monthly $1,400 subsidy from the college which, according to Erica Nukaya, the Assistant Controller for Students and Grants, allows Paradox to remain open as a social space during evening hours when few drinks are sold. However, this subsidy was first established in 2020 and has not been updated to account for the raised minimum wage.
Both Paradox Managers said that they learned about the gravity of the situation “a few weeks ago.”
Since Paradox is not a profitable business, and since administration is no longer backfilling the deficit, the cafe will not have money to purchase coffee and supplies unless it can find a way to pay its $15,000 deficit by the end of this semester. On its current course, the cafe would almost certainly be forced to close its doors for good in only a few months.
Currently, Paradox is pursuing a variety of ways to pay off its debts. “We have increased prices by $.15 for now and will be raising them incrementally this semester to bring them closer to market value,” wrote Ruiz. “We still want to keep them as low as possible, by the end of the semester most prices will be about $.75 more expensive.” They’ve also started selling merch and snacks, reopened Nu Paradox, and increased student outreach via social media and SB Info. Additionally, they are offering their space and services for campus events.
Soon, they will also begin fundraising among the campus community. According to Reed’s Student Fundraising Guidelines, “Students are expected to conduct fundraising in a way that predominantly focuses on the internal campus community (ie: bake sales, letter writing, events, etc) […] we ask that student groups refrain from broader outreach to alumni, trustees, businesses, or foundations so that the fundraising does not conflict with the college’s fundraising efforts.” In accordance with this policy, Noger-Onstott said to “Look forward to some exciting fundraising events in the future.”
One avenue they will not be pursuing for financial support: Student Senate. Wrote Noger-Onstott, “We are separate from them, financially and officially, and want to remain that way. The fact that they have been so involved in this discussion this semester is an anomaly caused by the fact that Admin asked them to step in and ‘’solve’ the situation.” Ruiz added that Paradox “never wanted Senate’s financial support.”
According to Student Body President Safi Zenger, the Paradox issue was first brought to the Student Senate at the end of a biweekly meeting between Zenger, Student Body Vice President Margot Becker, Vice President for Student Life Karnell McConnell-Black, and Dean of Students Tawana Parks. In a move that Zenger described as “very strange,” Parks and McConnell-Black raised the Paradox’s financial woes as a Senate matter, despite the historical separation between the two bodies. As Zenger put it: “Karnell and Tawana brought it up as ‘what are we going to do about this debt,’ and I was like ‘who is we?’” This concerned Zenger not only because this request for intervention came from Student Life instead of Paradox itself, but also because Student Senate “doesn’t exactly have $16,000 lying around.”
Paradox entered this semester’s Funding Poll at the encouragement of Erica Nukaya. Wrote Nukaya, “Since the Paradox is a student organization, last term I advised the Paradox finance manager to speak to the Student Body about the possibility of funding their manager positions long term and help with their deficit.” But Senate didn’t agree with this perspective, and did not give them any SB funds; in their LTTE, Senate wrote, “Because Paradox is a business that charges money for its services to students and is not currently returning revenue to the Treasury, we were not able to fund them in Funding Circus/Hell.”
Senate emphasized that giving Paradox money would curtail the cafe’s autonomy, placing their finances, hiring, and bylaws under Senate’s control. And this is not something the Paradox wants. Wrote Ruiz, “We value our autonomy greatly, especially as a staff of majority low-ses POC, and do not want to submit to bureaucratic structures.” Treasury has given Paradox an April 1st deadline to request financial assistance from Senate, in the event that Paradox deems that course of action necessary.
“I think the fact that Admin suddenly involved [Senate] this semester has added a lot to the confusion and caused a lot of unneeded panic,” wrote Noger-Onstott.
Overall, the entire Paradox situation has been mired in miscommunication. Ruiz, Noger-Onstott, Members of Senate, and some administrators which the Quest spoke with all expressed a sense of confusion and frustration at the lack of communication and clarity surrounding the matter. As Noger-Onstott wrote, “We have been upset by the lack of communication, especially because both senate and the admin had been talking about shutting us down before we even knew how serious the situation was. I’m hoping that there will be more clear communication in the future.”
Despite uncertainty about the future, Paradox’s managers are hopeful. “We have been receiving a lot of support from people in and out of the Paradox who want to help us and make sure that the cafe stays,” wrote Noger-Onstott. Every person the Quest reached out to has encouraged students to go to the Paradox, buy a cup of coffee, and support Reed’s premier student-run small business.
I think most alumni would rather give money to keep the paradox afloat than to the college.