Students were shocked to learn that the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) had decided to end their food and beverage services (FBS) forever on June 15. What was more surprising was to hear that the Highland Pub had been permanently closed with little to no warning on April 28. Whether or not you liked the Highland (or any of the other services for that matter), students are having a hard time coming to terms with the SFSS Board of Directors’ decision.
Robert Hanson has been working with FBS for a year now in the Higher Grounds Coffee Shop. He and his co-worker Wilson Adhikari are just two of the many people who will be losing their jobs once the service shuts down.
“I got an email from the manager a day before the public got notified,” said Hanson about the news that FBS was shutting down. “I think it was a huge disappointment, especially a week after the SFSS elections. There was no mention of the closure at all during the elections and then to just drop it on us without any consultation as students was very disappointing.”
Adhikari agreed that the notice to FBS workers was handled in a very unprofessional manner. “For the students who are a lot younger, it’s not as big of a deal, but there’ve been people working there for a decade, you know. People with families, . . . rent, mortgages, whatever . . . And those people got let go on a whim’s notice. We only got, I think it was two weeks, week and a half, notice before the 28th. So it was really short notice . . . they definitely could’ve handled it better, for sure, to say the least.”
Second-year student Meera Champawat was home in Oregon when she heard the news of the FBS closure.
“It seemed really out of the blue and sudden,” said Champawat. “I didn’t feel like we were given any warning and I feel like we, as the students of SFU, should’ve had more of an opportunity to have a say in that decision . . . [C]ause it’s not even them just closing down one or letting us know that they have a plan in place to like make changes . . . [T]o me it just feels like saying, ‘Welp, we’re closing them down.’ That’s it.”
Despite posts saying FBS would be closing in June, the SFSS made a subdued announcement that the pub (and by effect, the Ladle, as they share a kitchen) would be shutting down for good on April 28.
“I remember that the postings that we were all seeing were saying, ‘We are going to close them permanently, but not until June.’ And that the fact that they’re already closed seems [ Champawat shrugged]. Why say they were going to be open till June?” asked Champawat, a sentiment echoed by many students.
Adhikari said people coming to Higher Grounds are still unaware of the closure and surprised to find that The Ladle has already ceased their services. “They come and they’re like, ‘No soups today?’ and it’s like, ‘No soups forever[,]’” he said. “ . . . It’s like that Seinfeld episode, you know, ‘No soup for you!’”
What did the SFSS do?
It’s no big secret that the pub was failing. Many are aware that the Highland was running a half-a-million-dollar deficit each year, which was a major reason for the summer closure last year.
“It’s not recent; it’s not just the last year where there has been a deficit,” said SFSS President Hangue Kim. “There have been deficits for years and it has ranged from 350 to 500 thousand dollars. The last year’s board just made the decision and said that it wasn’t an efficient use of student dollars.”
“[E]vidently this was a decision that previous boards also wanted to make,” said former SFSS president Larissa Chen, who echoed Kim’s statements. “There’s always been, you know, reports that are released or . . . features in The Peak where it does talk about the deficit that the pub does face and a lot of the other barriers . . . [W]e had a few interviews during the summer, I believe, and in the fall recently where we did talk about it and . . . multiple presentations from . . . management as well, staff saying ‘Hey, here are the obstacles that we face.’”
The Highland had many issues to deal with thanks to strict advertising policies. “There’s a lot of limitations set up on us as an organization as well based on policies by the university, based on how and what we can market in terms of any pub events happening, or anything like that. So that was a big contributing factor as well,” said Kim. “We did look for ways . . . to improve it. We changed the leadership for the space, we changed menus, we introduced loyalty programs, we tried hosting more events . . .”
FBS manager John Flipse declined to comment on the closure and his time with the organization. Chen also cited declining turnout to events at the pub and the rising cost of food and alcohol as reasons why the pub was suffering. “[S]tudents definitely want to be very . . . fiscally responsible, or at least they try to be.”
Still, it was a hard choice for the board to make.
“It did weigh heavy on the board. It wasn’t an easy decision,” said Kim. “There was a lot of discussion that happened at the board table and what was really important was even for the staff’s sake, we want to say thank you even for the amount of years of service that they provided the student society and the students.”
“Personally, I’m really disappointed, right? The pub was a place that I got to meet a lot of new people, got to go to a lot of student events, and evidently it’s a really important social space on campus for not just students, but like . . . faculty members — staff — to go and utilize,” said Chen.
Chen also stated that there were some student consultations. “I think that one of the key factors for why there wasn’t more consultation, . . . [was that] there was a special general meeting, I believe, in 2015 where it was brought to a vote . . . [T]here’s a question put on the ballot that was asking . . . here’s the amount of money that the pub loses annually year after year, do you still support having like FBS services? And students said ‘yes’ . . . But one of the key factors in that one was, I believe, the union was really involved in it evidently[.]”
Chen acknowledged that this is part of the union protecting its members. “[T]he union was really focused on protecting their employment, as they should,” she said. Ultimately, it came down to the financials, said Chen. “ . . . [W]e do want to provide that social space for students . . . but . . . the board doesn’t believe that students should be the ones paying up the tab when it does go into a deficit[.]”
Despite the best of intentions by the SFSS, students are still outraged by the lack of consultation. “[T]hey [the SFSS] should have done more consultations with the student body before making this decision. And I think that they let us down by shutting down food and beverage services. It’s a very important service for students and for the SFU community and without it, I think it undermines the legitimacy of the SFSS in general to not have the service,” said Hanson.
“Well, the biggest thing is . . . I really believe that they should be more transparent. They should be more transparent with how the administration is run because . . . it’s really easy to abuse a system that [has] been set in place,” said Adhikari. “ . . . [T]hey had a month left in their term and it was done and somehow that was kept secret as well . . . [S]omething as big as closing down a whole department . . . there’s [sic] lots of people losing their jobs. So it’s not like just closing down, like, a small little store or something.”
He also believes that the service is more important than the price tag. “[M]oney should be spent in places where it needs to be, where it can benefit the students and sure, we may lose some, but you know we’re not here to make money . . . it’s just a service[.]”
What did we lose?
Let’s be real here: the Highland was not the greatest food option on campus. The quality was not reflective of the price, and not in a good way. Even the Ladle was lacking options after it moved beside Higher Grounds. So what are students losing?
“[T]he best part of the pub was . . . having this nice space to go and hang out with friends,” said Champawat. “ . . . [T]here aren’t that many community spaces at SFU where you get to, like, hang out with your friends. There are either study spaces or classrooms for the most part, so I’m gonna miss having somewhere to just kinda hang out with friends.”
Chen said that some of the strongest opinions about the closure of the pub have come from students no longer going to SFU. “[T]here’s [sic] also a lot of alumni who had really fond memories of their experiences back when they were attending SFU and coming to the pub,” she said.
Adhikari is concerned for all the first-years who will never get to have a drink at the Highland; a rite of passage for many SFU students. “There’s [sic] so many experiences that are shutting down,” he said.
“SFU Burnaby campus is relatively isolated ‘cause we’re literally on a mountain,” said Champawat. “And there’s [sic] not very many other places around for us to get food or spend time with our friends and so I do think that it could have been handled better and that the SFSS should definitely be making some sort of plan to remedy that situation . . . [T]he library isn’t exactly a place you hang out, you go there to study. So I feel like we as students are losing something and the SFSS hasn’t asked us what they should do about it or what we would like to see done.”
Adhikari also said he’s going to miss the student aspect of FBS. “You’re coming here for service from the students . . . it’s not some corporate image that people have to represent, you know, it’s just everyday people just like you, students . . . [The] majority of the time, they care about the school; they care about what happens.”
What happens next?
“I have no idea,” said Hanson, when asked about what the space will be used for next. “I’ve heard rumours of privatization, but I doubt that’s going to happen.”
Adhikari was also against privatization. “Well, I would think it would be not that great,” he said. “From what I heard, SFU was against corporate chains in the first place which is the reason why shops like Renaissance and stuff were able to . . . open up.”
Kim said there are no official plans for the space as of yet. “ . . . I think that the biggest thing that our new board is going to look into is exploring options for how we can engage with the students again and look for different ways, different avenues to support students,” he said.
Chen encouraged students to still use the space in the interim. “There’s still the space there and there’s still the opportunity for events to be hosted and there’s still an opportunity for another group to come in and, you know, have that space available for students,” she said.
Adhikari hopes the SFSS will consider listening to students more when they make decisions about the space in the future. “[U]ltimately, you know it’s not just the one-year term that you’re here for, that you’re doing this for. You have to think big picture with the decisions that you make . . . how much they’re going to affect the students later on[.]”
With files from Cecile Favron.