Grad House financial struggle, apology discussed at Graduate Representative Council meeting

Campus Local News

Plans for closure of restaurant not at the forefront of discussion

Photo by Emily Fagan, Editor-in-Chief

On August 13, the Graduate Representative Council met to discuss the creation of a plan to tackle the Grad House restaurant’s ongoing financial struggle and issue an apology to the Grad House staff. Over 20 graduate students, including staff members of the Grad House, came for the meeting that ran for nearly two and a half hours.

As previously reported by the Martlet, this meeting was initially called by the Graduate Student Society (GSS) Executive Board on July 24, after the Grad House staff had been informed about the restaurant’s ongoing financial difficulties and the potential for closure as soon as September. 

Mehdi Hashemi, Chair of the GSS, later clarified that the GSS is only considering temporary closure as a last resort. However, this came after pamphlets imploring patrons to “Save the Grad House” began to be distributed around campus, which sparked dozens of emails from students, alumni, and faculty to members of the Executive Board in support of not closing the restaurant. 

An unsustainable crisis

At the start of the meeting, Paul Murphy was introduced as the guest chairperson for the meeting so that Hashemi could put forward the second motion.

“This is an extremely important meeting for the Graduate Students’ Association,” Murphy said to the gallery of students. “Do not be afraid to speak and let your voice be heard.”

Due to the significance of the meeting, two additional voting councillors were added to the GRC for the meeting.

Carla Osborne, the GSS Director of Finance, delivered a brief financial update about the Grad House’s situation over the past few years. According to a handout at the meeting, the restaurant has lost money in most of its years in operation, with worsening financial pressure since 2014.

The loss of revenue due to the Grad House’s closure from recent renovations was greater than anticipated — this, coupled with a loss of membership, has resulted in a $91 000 loss to the GSS’ Operating and Food and Beverage Fund.

For the last five years, the restaurant has lost $58 000 a year, “which is unprecedented,” Hashemi said.

The present situation is unsustainable, Osborne said. For that reason, they’re looking to make changes.

One councillor asked why the Grad House has lost so much money, which proved to be a difficult question to answer. Osborne said it’s something the GSS is looking into with auditors and food industry professionals, but ultimately they could not speak to the reason for the loss.

For the last five years, the restaurant has lost $58 000 a year, “which is unprecedented,” Hashemi said.

“Is the restaurant not making profit, or is it just management?” said Mike Hudson, a student in the gallery. Stacy Chappel, GSS Executive Director, replied that there is no profit.

In response, the Grad House has already reduced summer hours, reevaluated the menu, conducted a third-party review of its operating costs, and consulted food industry professionals. Going forward, they have plans to advertise off campus and update enrollment projections, along with  raising the cost of food. 

While Chappel said food at the Grad House is substantially less expensive than food available downtown — and even Felicita’s at the Student Union Building — staff wages have not kept pace with inflation. As the cost of menu items is re-evaluated, she expects this may have a big impact on graduate students going forward.

Once members of the Executive Board finished going through the background on the meeting’s main motions, Neil Barney, chair of the BCUWU GSS Bargaining Unit (the union that represents Grad House staff), spoke about proactive changes made by staff to help make the Grad House profitable again. .

 Some of the goals of staff are to undercut UVic’s prices, Barney said, and to make everyone on campus aware that the restaurant space is open to them, not just graduate students. 

To this end, a new menu was recently released, management is working on starting up a happy hour special, and the possibility of hosting Dungeons and Dragons nights is also being explored. Many of the staff’s initiatives, including improved advertising through posters and signage, were waiting on the outcome of the GRC meeting before they could be launched.

Advertising isn’t part of Barney’s job, but he said that alongside Grad House staff, it’s something he’s been working hard at recently. A social media campaign has been established for the restaurant, and they’re in the process of gathering data and analytics on the results of their efforts.

Steps towards solutions

Following the discussions about finances and revenue, the first motion called for the GSS Executive Board to write a formal letter addressed to the unionized GSS staff, apologizing for how the board communicated issues and concerns regarding Grad House financials. 

This is in reference to when Grad House staff were informed of these issues at the end of a meeting in July initially scheduled for the discussion of management reviews, where not all staff were present. Barney said closure of the Grad House was heavily discussed, although the GSS mentioned other options were being considered.

“[This motion is] a way that the GRC can show that we are holding accountable our executives, and also [ourselves] to the people we employ,” one member of the GRC said.

There were two letters sent from the Executive Board to the union apologizing for the way things were communicated in that staff meeting and the nature by which the GRC meeting was called. One member of the Grad House staff, who introduced himself as Andrew, said while the initial message was a good explanation, he feels it was a response to community and Martlet bringing attention to the issue.

“In terms of a formal apology, I don’t even know if most staff have seen it,” Andrew said, as the previous messages were not broadcast widely. “They might be feeling the stress of it but not know an apology has been made.”

After further discussion, the GRC passed the motion.

The final motion of the evening called for the Executive Board to create a proposal for the next steps in continuing to maintain Grad House services while reviewing food services to ensure they are cost-effective, and establishing a report on their progress so far in time for the October GSS Annual General Meeting.

“[This motion is] a way that the GRC can show that we are holding accountable our executives, and also [ourselves] to the people we employ,” one member of the GRC said.

A heated debate broke out in the discussion of this motion, prompted when Councillor Connor Leschner expressed concern about the Grad House losing its identity as a place for graduate students in the process of inviting other groups into the space. He proposed an amendment regarding the prioritization of graduate students in the restaurant. 

However, there is already a policy in place that prioritizes graduate students, as that is part of the GSS’ mandate. Graduate students get a 10 per cent discount, so in the long run the Grad House actually makes more money off of non-grad student diners than graduate students.

“We are all forgetting the big — we are losing money,” a former GSS chair in the gallery reminded everyone. He said that he feels prioritization is important, but not right now.

In spite of his words, several councillors agreed with the feelings expressed by Leschner.

An amendment noting the importance of keeping graduate students in mind for this space is added to the motion and the motion passed. 

After the meeting adjourned, Hashemi stated that he felt the meeting went well, as they were able to engage in an important conversation. 

In an email with the Martlet, Barney also expressed optimism with the results of the GRC meeting.

“The Grad House staff are thrilled to continue serving the community in September and to again be working with the GSS Executive Board to ensure that both the restaurant and coffee shop recover from the current financial difficulties,” he said.

As for the future of the Grad House, there is lots to be done before the GSS Annual General meeting in October, where an updated plan of action will be presented to graduate students.

“We’re going to try to get all the advice and consultation possible from professionals so we can make changes that would make Grad House a sustainable service, not something that is in constant panic,” said Hashemi. “We need to work really hard to fix the issues with the restaurant … we’re hoping that this time, we can solve the issue.”

With files from Kelsey Lessard.