For Mory’s, an institution rooted in over a century of Yale tradition, change does not come easy. But for the iconic club on York St., an update may be necessary, lest the famous campus hangout fade into the annals of history.
The 157-year-old private club and restaurant, an institution often seen as symbolic of Yale’s blue-blood history, is remaking its image and its offerings in an effort to stem financial difficulties and appeal to more students, its representatives said. The changes have not come without controversy. While Mory’s says it must attract more Yalies in order to stay in business, the club’s new direction has upset some employees and members who fear, above all, the loss of the tradition they say makes Mory’s what it is today.
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Cheever Tyler ’59, the chairman of the Mory’s Board of Governors, said the club must fight the long-established perception that it is an exclusive, old-school institution — an image that is far less popular with today’s diverse student body than it was with students generations ago.
“What we have is an institution that was built on tradition … in an environment where traditionalism, at least in the old way, is becoming less and less a factor of campus life,” Tyler said. “We look traditional, but we want to think in other ways.”
The goal for Mory’s management is to once again make the club into a place where Yale students feel comfortable spending time. And to do that, the club needs to solicit feedback from the current Yale community and better address the modern environment in which Mory’s operates, said general manager James Shumway.
“These questions haven’t been asked here, as far as I know, in a long, long time,” Shumway said. “It’s a lot of inertia going the other way. It’s somewhat difficult to change.”
But change Mory’s will, and the changes may be sweeping. On Monday, engineers visited the club’s clapboard building at 306 York St. — one of few Broadway-area sites not owned by University Properties — to assess how it might be renovated and expanded. Shumway said the club hopes to add a bar as well as a larger space that can accommodate more than 30 people, the current cap for the club’s largest meeting room.
Other changes will be directed more specifically at students. For one, the club may address its hours — Mory’s currently closes, even on weekends, at 8:15 p.m. But students tend to eat later than they have in the past, Shumway said, and Mory’s should stay open later to accommodate them. Another change may be the addition of wireless Internet access, so students can bring their laptops and work at the club, much as they might do at Starbucks or Au Bon Pain, he said.
But at the same time, Mory’s must not be careful not to let progress come at the expense of tradition, which is what makes Mory’s what it is, Tyler said.
“This is something different than a restaurant, which we all work very hard to preserve,” he said.
A controversial firing
With its iconic carved tables and walls of photos, Mory’s may find that its members are reluctant to approve of changes to the restaurant. The most visible change so far, the removal of the club’s longtime head waiter and assistant manager, created a firestorm this summer in the local press in what appears to be a significant distraction for an organization that was already at work refining its public image.
Wayne Nuhn, the longtime head waiter at Mory’s, was dismissed this summer over disagreements with management, the New Haven Register reported. Many members were none too pleased with the firing, as Nuhn had welcomed Mory’s members to their club for over four decades.
While Nuhn and Mory’s appear to have made amends — the club held a retirement party for their longtime maitre d’ on Nov. 21 — the decision to fire Nuhn was representative of Mory’s new direction, some critics said. Nuhn and Tyler declined to comment on the controversy.
Paul Drew, who worked as a waiter at Mory’s for 16 years before resigning in August, said the changes Mory’s is about to undertake are a step in the wrong direction for the club, and Nuhn was ousted because he refused to go along with them. For Drew — who hopes to start a preservation society to raise money for the club — Mory’s has always been a place of tradition, and the club’s management is trying to turn the beloved watering hole into a formal restaurant, he said.
“[The management is] losing the whole concept of Mory’s,” Drew said. “The food and beverage is just a sideline. What you’re selling there is college memories … it’s what makes this place special.”
While the public controversy has largely subsided, Mory’s management may not have heard the last of the anger surrounding Nuhn’s departure. One source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no final decision has been made, said some members are considering whether to seek the revocation of Mory’s state-issued charter. In 1969, the Connecticut General Assembly amended the Mory’s charter to allow the club’s Board of Governors to manage the club in perpetuity without consulting its members, and several members who believe the club’s new direction does not represent the priorities of the Mory’s membership may challenge that act, the source said.
Financial constraints have contributed to the restaurant’s need to change, club officials said.
Because the club tries to keep menu costs down to attract students, the restaurant operations at Mory’s have not turned a profit in recent memory, Tyler said. But with annual dues, voluntary contributions from members and occasional contributions from the club’s endowment, Mory’s has been able to break even, he said.
“The objective is to minimize the operating loss, which will expand if we’re not responsive,” Tyler said. “We recognize that if we don’t respond to the trend and the cultural influences that now are prevalent on the Yale campus … that number is going to increase. And if that number increases, we have a problem.”
The club has already moved to market itself to students as an alternative to other local restaurants. Six years ago, Mory’s dropped its formal dress requirement, and the eatery offers a special dinner menu for students featuring lower-priced entrees.
While the standard Mory’s menu features pricier items — like a $28 steak and a pasta entrée for $22.50 — most items on the student menu, like pan-seared salmon, are about $10. The club’s lunch menu is similarly priced.
But New Haven’s burgeoning restaurant scene should not be seen as a detriment to Mory’s, said Scott Healy ’96, the executive director of the Town Green Special Services District, which promotes business in the downtown area. The recent proliferation of dining options in New Haven — there are over 130 eateries within walking distance of the Green — has brought many highly-acclaimed restaurants to the city, and though Mory’s may find it difficult to compete as a culinary destination, he said, it could find success by playing playing up its tradition.
“I’m not sure that Mory’s will ever be able to compete with New Haven’s restaurant scene,” he said. “It’s the tradition that people go there for … Mory’s is not a place that, without drastic changes on its food, is going to compare.”
A possible new competitor for Mory’s, the sports-themed Manchester Grill, will open on the first floor of Arnold Hall, the new annex building near Davenport College. But David Newton, director of University Properties, said Mory’s does not compete directly with other local eateries — and should not be hurt by the new grill restaurant — because its trademark is tradition, not food.
“Mory’s has a certain attraction and a certain clientele that will always come,” Newton said.
Will students return?
At the heart of the transformation at Mory’s are Yale students, whom the club hopes to lure back in increasing numbers. Of the club’s 15,000 members — most of whom are life members and do not pay annual dues — only 780, or about 5 percent of the total membership, are current students. Though student membership is up 1 to 2 percent from last year, Shumway said, the club hopes to vault that number significantly higher. A four-year student membership costs $40.
“Because the campus has changed so much in the past couple of decades, Mory’s has to change too, in terms of how we’re going to attract new members,” Shumway said. “I don’t believe that we have done enough in the past 10 or 15 years to address the changes that have occurred on campus and we’re trying to do that now.”
Student reaction to the modernization of Mory’s has been mixed. Several current student members said that adding more student-friendly conveniences might allow Mory’s to overcome the perception that it is old-fashioned and formal. But others questioned whether the club has much of an appeal to modern Yale students.
Steven Kryger ’10, a Mory’s member, said the club is a surprisingly good value and, most of all, a treasure trove of history that should appeal to any Yale student. Making the club more accessible for students should help spark new interest in Mory’s, he said.
“Part of the appeal of a private club is it’s quiet, it’s relaxing, it’s a place where you can be comfortable,” Kryger said. “Making it a hangout place, not just a fancy dinner place … I think that would help out a lot.”
But Mattie Johnson ’10 said the average student is not in the market to dine at a place like Mory’s, especially considering that cheaper eateries such as Yorkside Pizza and Restaurant are so close by. The club’s reputation also serves as a deterrent, she said.
“I feel like it’s for older people,” she said. “They should make it clear that it’s not just for old white people.”
For Mory’s, the first challenge is to begin moving forward while still keeping an eye to the club’s storied past — and if Mory’s can do that, the club should be able to continue as a Yale tradition for years to come, Tyler said.
“Yale and Mory’s are wed together, and it’s an important thing to preserve,” he said. “We want to keep the brand, but we understand that we have to change it.”