To the many who have worked at the Bistro since it opened, the coffee shop is more than just a place to get a caffeine fix or hang out with friends. It's a testament to entrepreneurial spirit, a place to gain work experience and, most important, their second home.
"It's a job, but it doesn't always feel like a job because you're with your friends," says Melissa Dean ’07, the current general manager. "We like to say we're the Bistro family."
In late September, about 130 members of the Bistro family — supporters and past employees — returned to their former home to celebrate "20 Years of Common Grounds." Some of them hopped behind the counter for a shift. Others attended a dinner to share memories of their latte-making days. "There's always this fondness for the Bistro," says Darby Schroeder ’88, a member of the first staff. "It doesn't matter if the current Bistro staff is 20 years younger. There's still a camaraderie over time."
Bistro founders Eric Friedenwald-Fishman ’88 and John Donovan ’88 (right center) vividly remember complaining as sophomores that there were no good places to go at night for coffee in Salem. They asked then-President Jerry Hudson if they could open a campus coffee-house. In a series of meetings with Hudson, presenting their well-researched business plan and fine-tuning the details, the president gave them $20,000 to start the shop. "I give Jerry Hudson full credit for staying with us and giving us the time to fully address his questions in an appropriate way," Donovan says. "That was one of the best learning experiences."
A hectic summer followed in preparation for opening in the fall of 1986. They divided their days between renovation projects and recipe tests. Many of today's Bistro treats are made from those early recipes, including the chocolate and peanut butter Buzz Bar, named after teacher and administrator Richard Buzz Yocom ’49.
Chris Didway ’89, a member of the original staff, was among those to work a shift. She says it's gratifying to see the popularity of the Bistro today. "It's the pulse of the campus. It's the hub where everything convenes. There was a void before, and Eric and John filled it."
The Bistro's long-standing role as an entertainment venue also was recognized at the reunion. Garett Brennan ’01 made open mic nights a fairly regular event at the Bistro, and his band, Herschel Patch and the Gleakers, was a fixture at the shop in the early 2000s. His current folk Americana band, Garett Brennan & the EbGbs (above top), played a return engagement the first night of the reunion.
Regular music nights are just one of the features Friedenwald-Fishman and Donovan say are proof that the core idea of the Bistro has worked — the shop truly is its own community. "Whenever I walk into the Bistro, there are people studying together, tables of students and faculty interacting or people playing music," Friedenwald-Fishman says. "That sense of connection, that sense of community, is very, very much there."
For a full account of the Bistro's history and the reunion, see the November issue of WU News or the Online Community.