Tea Room deal brewing

The original Queen’s Tea Room was located on the corner of Division and Union streets for more than 60 years.
The original Queen’s Tea Room was located on the corner of Division and Union streets for more than 60 years.
Photo courtesy of EngSoc

It’s not often a third-place team wins the grand prize.

But after more than four years of planning, the Engineering Society is on the cusp of getting the go-ahead from administration to open their own coffee shop.

The decision comes after two University food contractors first chose not to run their own service in the same space.

“It’s been like a relay race for the past few years,” said Chris Zabaneh, EngSoc president. “This executive, this year, will have the pleasure of carrying the baton right to the finish line.

“Barring any setbacks, we hope to have the Queen’s Tea Room open by the end of the year.”

EngSoc began their bid to run a food service in the new engineering building, the Integrated Learning Centre (ILC)—also known as Beamish-Munro Hall—back in 2001, under the leadership of then-EngSoc President Grant Bishop.

The inspiration for the food service stretches back decades. For more than 60 years, a sturdy building of the same name—the Queen’s Tea Room—stood on the same Union and Division street corner where the new food service will set up shop. It was torn down in 1973.

The approximately 81 sq. metre food service space built into the ILC has been empty for more than a year.

When the building officially opened in January 2004, the joint EngSoc-Faculty of Applied Science team was still uncertain if they would gain University approval to proceed with the project.

“We’re reaching a critical stage this summer—the project will either be approved and we’ll go forward with it, or it will come to an end,” former EngSoc President Jim Morrison said to the Journal in a June 2004 e-mail.

The project has now reached this crucial stage.

Bruce Griffiths, director of residence and hospitality services, said the University used the same approval process in the Tea Room case as is used anytime a new building opens or indicates interest in having a food service.

Food contractors Sodexho and Brown’s Fine Foods were given the opportunity last September and February, respectively, to determine if they were interested in the space.

“At the first instance it looked good because all we saw was the outside of the building,” Griffiths said. “At that point, it looked like something that Queen’s Food Services was going to choose to run.

“It wasn’t until we saw the building, started learning more about it that we realized that some of the things that were inherent to the building were going to make it ‘food service unfriendly,’ I guess, from our point of view.”

Opaque glass, limited seating and a prohibitive food policy in many ILC rooms were top reasons the contractors chose not to proceed, Griffiths explained.

“Basically neither contractor was able to recommend it as a viable food service under our model, which is the first stage of our process,” Griffiths explained. “Now this is what I call the second phase—where another group comes forward and says our economic model is different, and as students we see a learning opportunity here, we would like to go forward.”

The Queen’s Tea Room will be one of only two non-alcoholic student-run food services on campus, the other being the AMS’s Common Ground. The Queen’s Tea Room will join the Common Ground in operating under the auspices of the University.

That’s where the similarity ends, proponents say.

“What we’d love to do is have zero consumer waste,” Zabaneh said. “We have the opportunity here to create an environmentally friendly establishment the likes of which our continent has never seen.”

Zabaneh explained the Queen’s Tea Room will be an academically focused service providing hands-on learning opportunities.

Courses will use the service as a tool of classroom experiments.

“We’ve had a lot of professors sign off on this,” Zabaneh said. “They’ve agreed to use the room for teaching and as a green project.”

The space will also provide a venue for student artwork and feature entertainment and speakers.

He added that students from all faculties would be welcome to work in the service.

“I would like to think that students would be excited for a student-run, environmentally and socially responsible coffee shop in such a great location in such a meaningful building,” he said. “This will help complete the design of the ILC as a place of academic exchange, student life and interaction between the students and the teachers.”

According to the Queen’s Tea Room business plan, the service hopes to offer fair trade coffee, loose teas, bubble tea, Montreal-style bagels, samosas and other locally produced, organic foods.

Zabaneh said there will be significant discounts for students bringing their own travel mugs.

Since the service must be financially viable, it will also supply its own mugs and biodegradable containers or recycled, green paper cups, at least in the beginning, he said.

“We’re not out to make a profit,” he said. “We’re out to make the place self-sustaining.”

Griffiths said the service’s environmental goals add extra pressure.

“If green were cheap and easy, everybody would just do it,” he said.

He said the University would not be responsible for covering any financial loss.

“I think it’s not as clear to us [the University] that if there were to be losses, where they would be covered from,” he said, explaining that is one of the final components to be addressed before the University gives the service full approval.

A $57,600 grant awarded by the AMS capital allocations committee in 2003 will help with the service’s start-up costs. A number of financial aid application packages have also been sent to various organizations, Zabaneh said, adding he is committed to ensuring the service’s viability.

“[EngSoc] services, they bank themselves,” he said.

Applied Science Dean Tom Harris said the Queen’s Tea Room will be more than just another food service.

“We’re particularly interested in seeing what it actually means to have minimal waste, maximum recycling,” Harris said. “This will be a good example of trying to implement a very sustainable solution, and whether as a society, as students, we’re willing to accept those kinds of things and the things that go along with it.”

Zabaneh quoted an engineering professor to describe EngSoc’s green aspirations.

“If we cannot do this here at Queen’s, then we can’t do it anywhere,” he said.

Zabaneh said construction will likely start in late August.

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