Rice Coffeehouse celebrates 30 years of caffeinating and caring

‘We put our whole heart into every cup of coffee’

Wiess College sophomore Morgan Bates lives off campus, but when she’s at Rice it’s Coffeehouse that anchors her daily life.

“It’s basically the only place on campus that I ever go,” Bates said. “So whenever I’m on campus, I’m either here or in class.”

The drinks are good and — even better — reasonably priced, the social sciences major said. But it’s the culture of Coffeehouse, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this week, that has made it such a centralizing force on campus.

“Coffeehouse is a place where you can come and interact with people from other colleges,” Bates said. “Probably every single friend that I have from a different college I have met at Coffeehouse.”

Rice Coffeehouse celebrated its 30th anniversary Dec. 3.(Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Rice Coffeehouse celebrated its 30th anniversary Dec. 3.(Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

From its inauspicious beginnings in the basement of Hanszen College in the 1960s, Coffeehouse eventually moved above ground and across campus in 1990, occupying the space that 4.Tac0 now calls home before settling into its current spot: a large, light-filled shop with a fireplace at one end and dozens of chairs and couches occupied by a constant rotation of students, whether working behind the counter or mingling over matcha green tea lattes.

Originally conceived of as a nonalcoholic alternative for on-campus student socializing, Coffeehouse has become much more than somewhere to grab a cup of coffee and study. For students like McMurtry College senior Sarah Gao, it’s a second home. For students like Gao, a two-time manager herself, it’s an opportunity to serve and learn from her peers.

“I think especially on a college campus, a coffee shop is very necessary for the well-being of the school as a whole,” Gao said.

Coffeehouse was Rice’s first student-run business and remains its most successful. It’s rumored to be one of the highest-volume privately owned coffee shops in Houston — a claim that’s difficult to verify but easy to believe if you’ve seen the long lines that stretch outside and down the hall of the Ley Student Center. Coffeehouse estimates it pours between 400 and 600 cups of drip coffee a day alone.

Remaining student-run has contributed to this success, Gao said, because students stay in touch with what their fellow Owls want and need in a coffee shop.

“It’s really gratifying because Coffeehouse is such a central part of campus and the Rice community,” Gao said. “Being able to provide for students in such like an integral way, like caffeinating everybody, is something that’s very important, and it really helps me feel like I’m a part of the Rice community.”

As times have changed, each new group of Coffeehouse workers — called Keepers of Coffee, or KOCs — has made their mark: changing the décor, ordering new furniture, creating updated playlists and painting fresh murals on the walls. And as tastes have changed, so have the offerings at Coffeehouse.

Coffeehouse is a second home for students, faculty and staff alike. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Coffeehouse is a second home for students, faculty and staff alike. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

This, said Lovett College sophomore Marcus Tierrablanca, has been crucial to keeping Coffeehouse current while its core mission of service remains intact.

“I think although the people cycle out, you know, every four years, there’s a certain spirit that stays around,” said Tierrablanca, the current catering manager. “We’re kind of like conduits as KOCs — we’re here to serve people and we’re here to give people coffee and the best experiences that they can get.”

Former general manager Mandy Quan, a Will Rice senior, just turned over her title a couple of weeks ago to Jones College junior Brendan Wong, but Coffeehouse will remain a central fixture in her life, she said.

“I was just looking for a job, but I really did find a really important sense of community here in Coffeehouse,” said Quan, who’s double-majoring in anthropology and Women, Gender and Sexuality. “I love the idea of, like, steaming milk and making drinks to comfort people who come in.”

Quan attributed Coffeehouse’s success over the last 30 years to the passion of the KOCs, who she said “self-design by students for students,” creating everything from the menus and marketing materials to the drinks and design for the layout of the shop.

“It’s where we put all our crazy creative energy,” she said. “And we put our whole heart into every cup of coffee.”

Wong, an ecology and evolutionary biology major with an artistic streak, already got to pour some of his creative energy into Coffeehouse in his previous position as its publicity and marketing manager. The colorful mural of coffee cups and streams of steamed milk pouring across one wall was also Wong’s design.

Coffeehouse celebrated its anniversary with a week of games and giveaways. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Coffeehouse celebrated its anniversary with a week of games and giveaways. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Now, as general manager, he said, “I’m just gonna try and make sure that I don’t burn this place down to the ground.”

After all, he said, it’s no small feat being handed the reins of a beloved business with a fervent client base. But being involved with the day-to-day operation of such an enterprise offers lessons you can’t learn in a classroom.

“I think what you learn here, honestly, is that you really get a glimpse into what life is,” Wong said. “And that’s such a broad thing, because it’s really hard to really capture what we go through daily, but you go through interpersonal conflicts, you go through interacting with customers, interacting with your fellow employees — but also you get to exercise a lot of creativity in this space.”

Wong said the current crew at Coffeehouse has benefited tremendously from the three decades of Rice students who have come before them — a perch upon the shoulders of giants, as it were, that comes with its own sense of pressure.

“I’m grateful for what we can do in this upcoming year,” Wong said. “But I’m also very certain Coffeehouse is going to celebrate their 100th anniversary someday.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.