Through the bustle of warm smiles and good conversation, students could come into Cowell Coffee Shop: For the Peoples to settle in for a warm bagel, have a coffee or tea, or try a new cultural dish — all of which you could get for free. But while students are unable to visit this quarter, it’s still serving students’ needs across campus.

Cowell Coffee Shop: For the Peoples, commonly known as Cowell Coffee Shop, is a staple food resource for UC Santa Cruz students. As a non-transactional, choice-based pantry, students are welcome to come in and enjoy fresh juices, premade food options, coffee, and teas, or merely bask in the welcoming atmosphere of the historic shop.

“We crank out here; it’s a small but mighty kitchen,” said Brooks Schmitt, Center for Agroecology Cowell Coffee Shop Food Supervisor.

Staff member uses the Cowell Coffee Shop kitchen to prepare onions for food. Photo from CHP Archives by Lucy Wald.

In an Instagram post on Sept. 21, Cowell Coffee Shop announced an indefinite closure due to ongoing repairs with plans to open during Week 3. Now, construction plans are proposed to conclude by Monday of Week 10, though they remain inconclusive due to conflicts with the current UC-wide strike.

When asked what initiated repairs, Schmitt cited an incident in August when an ice machine failed on a Friday afternoon and leaked under the floor over the weekend. By the time staff came in on Monday, it had bubbled up under the vinyl flooring and gone up into the walls, causing significant water damage. However, that wasn’t the end of their troubles.

“We had to do emergency moisture mitigation then and replace the wall panels and redo the floor,” Schmitt said. “That also involves pulling out and redoing all of the plumbing, and electrical that was there. And when the work becomes that extensive, it has to go through architectural review.”

Gabriela Anger, a fourth-year who works at Cowell Coffee Shop, explains her experience with the shop’s closure. 

“It’s definitely been a bummer and not part of the plan to shut down, but it’s also been really good in its own way because we wouldn’t be able to [get a chance to experiment with dishes] if we were open right now because it takes so much to keep the shop running.”

Anger pointed to the multiple food containers she was filling with membrillo, a popular quince paste that originated in Spain, noting that their ability to make very specific cuisines and give them to other spaces like the Redwood Market has been a pleasant experience.  

Despite being unable to open, the Cowell Coffee Shop has been immensely involved in collaborations with organizations on campus since September.

In collaboration with the Black Academy, they held a farm tour with Life Lab featuring garden activities with Life Lab, and refreshments including jambalaya, field salad, and strawberry trifles for 60 students from the African American Resource and Cultural Center. Moreover, they served 300 cups of boba milk tea for the Asian American/Pacific Islander Resource Center’s welcome event on Oct. 13. For the Harvest Festival, they served arroz, frijoles, ensalada, tamales, y salsa fresca for 300 students and community members. 

Amidst the current UC-wide strike, the coffee shop continues to provide resources and serve the UCSC community, both on the picket line and through the Redwood Free Market. 

“We believe that what we’re doing with basic needs is in alignment with the causes and what [strikers are] protesting,” Schmitt said. “So we’re going to do daily deliveries of food to the picket line in solidarity and continue to resource the Redwood Free Market.”

Despite the current work that the Cowell Coffee Shop is currently doing, Schmitt understands the importance of the shop as a resource for students on campus. However, the shop is still working around being dealt a tough hand.

“We just couldn’t operate with catastrophic water damage,” Schmitt added. 

Vivian Gerstein, Kitchen Manager for Cowell Coffee Shop, shares the sentiment that the uncertainty of not knowing when the opening is to come is frustrating, but the shop is doing its best to make the best of an unfortunate situation.

Although certainty concerning a definitive opening date continues to be conditional, spirits in the kitchen prevail, and there remains an air of excitement.

“We all want to open, we’re not trying to avoid opening, it’s that just more things keep popping up,” said Gerstein. “But we’re excited to open when the time comes.”