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Students’ council green-lights overhaul of Browsers, café to sport brand new name and look

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[wpw_ba_viewer width=”auto” disable_intro=”true”] [wpw_ba_img src=”×284.jpg” alt=”×284.jpg” title=”Back Bar”] [wpw_ba_img src=”×284.jpg” alt=”×284.jpg” title=”Window Tables”] [/wpw_ba_viewer]

Browsers Café will unveil an entirely new look and name this summer after more than a decade selling books and operating as a coffee house.

The University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union has approved a $725,000 renovation that will transform the top floor of the Memorial Union Building into a modern restaurant and café by day and versatile event space by night.

The project will be funded using the USSU student infrastructure fee, which levies $111 each year from full-time undergraduates and $55 each year from undergraduates taking fewer than three courses per term.

Construction is expected to begin early April and finish by mid-May, taking just six weeks.

The union hopes to capitalize on the demand for a venue that can host weddings, banquets, performance art and campus club bookings, says USSU Business and Services Manager Jason Kovitch.

“The existing business plan of Browsers saw a decline in book sales of 30 to 40 per cent over the last few years and we knew that was sort of drifting away from us,” Kovitch said at the Feb. 1 University Students’ Council meeting.

“At the same time, we didn’t have a coffee business that could exist on its own and generate the type of revenue we need to sustain that space.”

In fact, revenue gleaned from book sales at Browsers has nosedived from about $350,000 in 2003 to just $100,000 in 2011, according to a financial spreadsheet obtained last year by the Sheaf.

For the current fiscal year, Browsers is projected to sink nearly $18,000 into the red.

The renovation will rid the space of its large bookshelves, add booth seating and relocate the bar that snakes along the side of the space to the far back near the washrooms. The new bar will include coolers for bottled drinks, four draft beer taps, food displays, an espresso machine and a small oven.

Customers will be served at their table and food will be brought upstairs from Louis’. In addition, there will be a handful of short-order items exclusive to the upstairs, such as grilled paninis, salads, pizzas and baking. Self-serve coffee will no longer be available.

In recent years, Browsers has averaged about $90,000 annually in food and beverage sales.

“We’re quite confident that within the first year… we will be able to double that,” Kovitch said, adding that events like weddings and holiday parties can sometimes bring in up to $10,000 each.

“Without any advertising or anything, we already have three weddings booked this summer,” he said. “So that just speaks to the demand for this space.”

The space will seat 150 guests for dinner and an additional 100 guests for receptions.

The new space will also allow customers to eat and drink when Louis’ closes early, which is often the case when performers need to do soundcheck prior to a concert.

Kovitch plans to use existing Louis’ staff to fill the additional three to four hours of labour the new space will require per day.

Justin Wotherspoon of SEPW Architecture drafted the new design for the USSU. He previously worked on the $29-million Place Riel renovation and the last major renovation to Louis’ about a decade ago.

He was given just 10 days in December to come up with the design as the USSU is scrambling to have the space available by summer.

“We needed to come up with some sort of concept and design that still works as a coffee shop by day with food services, and a full-service bar and special venue space by evening,” Wotherspoon said.

A major component of the design, he said, was to “class up” the space by blocking the entrance to the washrooms with the bar.

“A lot of money actually ends up being put into the bar,” he said. But there will also be upgrades to the lighting and flooring to give it more of a “fine dining” feel.

The renderings are “very early,” Wotherspoon added, and are meant simply to give a basic understanding of the direction of the design.

The new name for the space has been chosen, according to USSU General Manager Caroline Cottrell, but will be kept under wraps until Browsers operations end and renovations begin.

USSU Vice-President Operations and Finance Steven Heidel began fleshing out the plan early in his term after last year’s executive started the project. Initially there was talk about refitting the space into a childcare centre.

“We could not get over the legal technicalities of turning that space into a childcare space,” he said. “The building is too old and also it’s right above a bar. Having a childcare space there just wasn’t possible. So I think this is the best option.”

Once finished, Heidel wants to see student groups use the space for parties, steak nights, galas and banquets. He says the space will be a less expensive and more convenient option for fundraisers than, for example, the Sutherland Hotel and Tequilas.

“It’s a very nice, bright space up there,” he said. “So we just want to keep that atmosphere.”

Renderings provided by the USSU

  • Hmm. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I fully approve removing the bookshelves and making it into a more multi-use space; on the other, I’m wary of the attempt to “class up” the space and “give it more of a “fine dining” feel.” Too often that often translates to a more formal and cold atmosphere. One of the things Browser’s did well was provide a warm and comfortable space to work, read, and visit; I hope that isn’t subsumed by brushed steel and a more “hip” atmosphere like Louis’ has adopted.

  • Because upgrading Louis worked so well? ACTUALLY, the renovation of Louis turned a successful, comfortable campus pub with affordable grill food into a money-pit with a menu too expensive for students yet too crappy for anyone willing to pay those prices. Now Browsers. When I started school, it was a consignment store in a basement. That was fine. Students can use a consignment store. Why get ripped off selling your used books to the buyback crooks who will then sell them back to the bookstore who will sell it to other students barely discounted from the price of a new one when you can just buy directly from other students with a small fee going to the USSU? Great model. Then they moved and started serving coffee and providing computers. Okay, the “Browser’s” name certainly works for an internet cafe. Then they took out the computers. Then they started putting up signs that said “please support the USSU, don’t bring your own food.” THAT is where they got downright offensive. The USSU is not a for-profit corporation, it is a union. Students are not obliged to support USSU businesses, the USSU is obliged to lobby the university on matters of student rights, and maybe provide services on the side. As a frill. Running a student pub, okay, lots of student unions do that. Running multiple restaurants? No. Seriously going beyond your mandate now. Given how much money Louis’ loses, one would think that the USSU would learn the lesson and rein in its commercial enterprises, which it is clearly not competent to manage.

    What I really don’t get about the plan from what I read in the article is whether or not Browser’s will just be “getting rid of the big shelves” or getting out of book consignment entirely. If so, you have thrown out the baby and kept the dirty bathwater. If the consignment bookstore, which was an appropriate student service (and should have been advertised better–I don’t get why anyone would stand in line to get ripped off by the book buyback people for a fraction of what they could get from consignment) is being replaced with yet another USSU-run for-profit business, when they already waste student fees to prop Louis’, Student Council made a move in the wrong direction. Losing money? Stop trying to run businesses and stick to your mandate of lobbying admin and government on student issues.

    Like the university itself, the USSU gets more bloated and further from its core mandate with every generation. The UofS forgets that its legislated mandate (as defined by the University Act 1995) is to provide education the humanities, sciences, and fine arts. Everything else it does is a frill. The University of Saskatchewan Student’s UNION is a union. Everything it does that is not lobbying or group-insurance related is a frill. The frills have long been blinding execs, both of the UofS and the USSU, to their actual mandates. Please stop playing “entrepreneur” with student fees. You have a terrible track-record for it and it is not the sort of thing a union should be sticking its nose into in the first place.

    • “We needed to come up with some sort of concept and design that still
      works as a coffee shop by day with food services, and a full-service bar
      and special venue space by evening,”

      IT’S CALLED “LOUIS'”!!! You do not need two of these in the same building. You can’t even make money off of one of them!

    • They can’t do childcare there, because the space is above a bar. Oh, I know! Let’s put another bar there!

    • lol

  • It’s awful that we’re losing a place to get textbooks for cheaper than at the campus bookstore, but I understand that if you aren’t making money on the store then it’s gotta go. The thing I don’t understand is why you are putting a licensed venue in the same building (on top of) another licensed venue, where the same sort of functions go on. I know that a lot of students besides myself are sad to see the Cove gone, so how about a new arcade instead? A bar above a failing bar makes no sense, but maybe a licensed arcade does.

    • I am also concerned about the idea to “class up” the space by blocking the entrance to the washrooms with the bar. You don’t want the washrooms being used? Or is this meant to be the view of the entrance to the washrooms that is blocked?

    • SweetBrown

      An arcade doesn’t generate money if it isn’t a trend. If you think that they should have a licensed arcade, you’re clearly lost in the world of business.

    • Devin Ens

      Why do they need another licensed anything? There is a bar, called Louis which is empty most of the day.

  • B

    This is going to be a complete waste of money, and I think they already know that. Here we are cutting employees to the university to save money, and yet we could just cut unnecessary renovations such as these and save some money that way.

  • SweetBrown

    The University isn’t going to get colleges sponsored at Louis or through the USSU because of renovations like this. Student’s like Tequilas or Sutherland because they get cheap drinks, they get actual servers coming to take their drink orders (where in Louis, they expect you to come purchase a dollar draft at the bar counter even though it’s a loss in revenue, rather than actually asking the customers if they’re interested in ordering a drink), and they have good music. These student societies don’t want to host their events at a venue that plays metal band music and music that nobody knows. They want to listen to the hottest, newest music that they actually know the words to. At one point this was a problem at Tequilas as they used to play all underground techno music, but ever since that venue changed up their music and service, they’ve become a much more successful business. This is why businesses like Tequilas or Sutherland thrive in the nightlife scene. The USSU can’t do this by renovating into a fine-dining cafe/lounge when their own staff at Louis don’t even know how to take drink orders on their busiest nights. Fine Dining on campus is a wasteful concept. It’s almost like trying to bring a high class concept of selling wine at McDonalds. Not the greatest interest of the USSU. Perhaps make it into an actual campus bar like the one’s in Regina or Calgary and redefine what a campus bar is all about.

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