Although the Thain Family Cafe in Bass Library has gone out of its way to avoid becoming another Machine City in aesthetic and atmosphere, it is now learning a lesson from its less trendy predecessor — cheaper is better.
During Friday’s library dedication ceremony, when the former Bass Library Cafe acquired its new name, University President Richard Levin announced he is exercising his “presidential prerogative” to cut the prices of all sizes of coffee, so that a small cup will cost exactly $1. Sandwich prices have also been reduced by about $1.
The move comes in response to recent student criticism of the cafe’s prices and their questionable fairness for students with restricted budgets, Levin said.
Levin and Yale Sustainable Food Project co-director Melina Shannon-Dipietro said it is unclear whether student dissatisfaction with cafe prices has actually harmed business. Students interviewed had mixed opinions on the significance of prices in their decisions to frequent the cafe.
Levin, who spoke about how the cafe idea developed, said prices were factored into plans at an early stage.
“The question was: Do we bring in Starbucks or do we use the Yale Sustainable Food Project to run this cafe?” he said. “When we made that decision, one of the things I remember saying was, ‘Okay, let’s go inside, but we can’t have Starbucks prices for coffee.’ ”
Since the cafe opened, regular coffee has been sold at $1.55 for a small, $1.75 for a medium and $1.95 for a large. Not only were those prices on par with what Starbucks charges per size, Levin said, they also exceeded the price of coffee at most other local coffeehouses.
“Somehow, it didn’t seem right to me that Yale students on financial aid who are studying at 11 at night for an exam and need a jolt of caffeine to stay awake should have to pay $1.55,” he said. “So I’m actually very proud of that decision.”
Shannon-Dipietro said sandwich prices are also adjusting to meet student demand, but because of the kind of food used to make the sandwiches, prices will not drop significantly. The seasonally rotating sandwich menu currently sells items for prices ranging from $4.95 to $5.95, after the $1 reduction.
“These sandwiches are more bang for the buck — the pricing on the roast-beef sandwich is competitive with local establishments — yet it is made with grass-fed beef, organic greens and organic flour in the bread,” Shannon-Dipietro said in an e-mail. “These sandwiches are better for your health and the health of the land, and the ethics behind the sourcing are consistent with Yale’s sustainability values.”
The cafe’s sandwich menu includes free-range smoked turkey with Vermont sharp cheddar and Dijon mustard for $5.95 and organic egg salad for $4.95. The free-range chicken and roasted local squash salad sells for $7.
Students who dine at the cafe frequently or who have simply passed by and noticed the food selection said they think the lower prices make sense.
“Without a doubt, Bass is overpriced,” Jakob Dorof ’11 said. “A lot of people have accused the cafe’s pricing system of reinforcing classism at Yale, but I come from a pretty comfortable upper-middle class family and I can’t even afford to get anything from there.”
But Rachel Chen ’11 said the cafe’s convenience renders its food prices meaningless.
“If I had the choice and I was studying late, I would go to Bass cafe instead of anywhere else, no matter what the prices were,” she said.
As a business, the cafe still has to be mindful of its own well-being, Shannon-Dipietro said. Unlike its competitors, the cafe does not get additional traffic from New Haven, and its operation is limited by library hours.
Operating the cafe is a balancing act between pleasing customers and generating enough revenue, Shannon-Dipietro said.
“It must reflect President Levin’s vision for a university that is intellectually engaged, socially engaged and both teaches and models sustainability in its operations,” she wrote.
The cafe plans on unveiling new items, including organic orange juice, muffins and new bottled drinks next week.