Thirsty summer students hankering for a beer may need to find a new watering hole: the SFSS recently announced that the Highland Pub would be closed for the summer. The move comes as Food and Beverage Services (FBS), a branch of the SFSS, tries to grapple with its trend of yearly deficits.
SFSS CEO Martin Wyant and newly elected SFSS President Deepak Sharma sat down with The Peak to discuss the closure. Wyant noted that the pub has accounted for a lion’s share of the approximately $3 million loss weathered by the society over the past eight years. The past several years have seen deficits upwards of $100,000. Current estimates for 2016 point to around a $360,000 loss. “When we say it loses money, what that really means is student dollars that are going to cover the deficit,” said Wyant.
According to Food and Beverages Services General Manager John Flipse, the pub “usually ends the summer with about $100,000 loss” due to fewer students being on the Burnaby campus during the summer semester. “The board has no more appetite for such a loss,” he said.
“I don’t want to give up on it but we have to stop the bleeding.”
The SFSS board began considering measures to address the deficit, including considering whether the FBS might run as a “for profit” business or as a service that would need continual subsidies.
Wyant looked into the history of the student society’s food and beverage operation when he began at the SFSS and was unable to find any record of it ever making money. Similarly, when reaching out to student societies that run pubs at campuses across the country he found that “almost all” had lost money. “We’re not alone. That’s kind of cold comfort,” said Wyant.
He pointed to the challenges associated with providing student-run food options on campus. Just last semester, a Big Smoke Burger (which is licensed) and a BC Liquor Store opened in the Cornerstone building on campus. When the Higher Grounds coffee shop originally opened, competitors like Starbucks and Tim Hortons did not operate on campus.
In addition to competition, Wyant noted that although food prices have been rising, particularly in BC, FBS hasn’t raised its own prices in a while. “We’re sensitive that students have limited capacity to pay,” he explained.
Furthermore, unlike most restaurants, FBS workers are unionized, resulting in higher labour costs. Wyant didn’t see a problem with this, arguing that workers should make a living wage; however, he notes that it is one of many challenges the pub faces. “I don’t want to give up on it but we have to stop the bleeding,” said Wyant.
Wyant and Flipse both noted the need to change the pub’s business model when the pub reopens, likely in the first week of classes in September.
Wyant in particular pointed to the success of events such as SFSS pub nights and those held by other clubs which can prove profitable for the pub. The new pub could focus on events and catering, an area under FBS which Wyant remarked is financially sound.
“I think we’ve got some opportunity there. We have 200–300 clubs here at SFU, that are tied to SFSS. [The pub] is a wonderful space. We would like to reimagine that space.”
Wyant suggested that changes to licensing could be an option on the table, with a space for underage students to lounge in the pub area. Sharma, however, noted that changes to licensing may prove challenging, as the university holds the liquor license and not the student society.
Wyant was optimistic about the pub adopting a new business model while still providing a space for students to socialize. Said Wyant, “I would love to find a way to have that space better used with less money coming out of student wallets. That’s what it comes down to.”