Phil Smith and the staff of The Oak House have started to settle into their routine as the bar and coffee lounge’s opening month on campus draws to a close.
The month has gone better than Smith expected, despite some of the challenges that come with running a business.
“We’re still learning what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “Every single day I learn something new.”
Opening hours have already shifted from 7 to 7:30 a.m. during the week. After the first week, there were only a few people coming in between 7 and 7:30, so management made the change. The half-hour change saves The Oak House money and allows student baristas an extra 30 minutes of sleep.
Technological issues with the router and point-of-sale system prompted Smith to invest in Square, an iPad, iPhone and laptop service that makes buying and selling faster and more efficient.
The POS system has shut down multiple times, preventing customers from paying with credit cards. Paying with Phoenix Cash has not been an issue because it runs on a different system. Although it takes several minutes to fix the system, a backup option keeps the line of customers moving.
Even with the setbacks, technology will serve as an important communication tool when student staff members are only working two or three hours a day.
“There’s not a lot of consistency with people coming and going a lot,” Smith said. “We don’t really have shifts.”
Smith said he wants to use the Notes app on the iPads in The Oak House more effectively, which will allow the constantly rotating staff to stay updated throughout the day.
As the bar and lounge continues to “put out the fires,” business continues to grow.
Customers have started to request items like breakfasts sandwiches and omelets. But both Assistant Manager Alex Ward and Smith have said they are not ready to offer a full menu.
“As much as I love an omelet and would love to serve it, we are not in a position right now to serve from raw to plate,” Smith said.
Ward explained that expanding options at The Oak House means hiring more staff, including chefs. The Oak House, he said, focuses on specialized drinks and the space, not on food. Both Ward and Smith also understand that adding too much too soon could put The Oak House in the same position as the restaurants before it.
Smith wants to be the place that makes it.
“We want to meet people’s needs, but we don’t want the idea of The Oak House to be compromised,” Ward said.
Fewer food offerings and a less complex menu makes the staff more versatile. They can move from the bar to the coffee line based on need, prepare appetizers, clean the equipment and close up without Smith.
Peter Walpole, a barista at The Oak House, said the staff juggles multiple roles well.
“We’re always asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to serve customers best, to be more efficient?’” he said.
Walpole said he sees the same customers several times a day and has started to form relationships with them.
Smith has picked up on customer habits and patterns, too. In just one month, The Oak House already has regulars. There are the guys who come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, drink a beer and talk about philosophy before heading to their philosophy class.
There’s the group of girls who eat dinner at Pandora’s Pies, enjoy a half-price bottle of wine at The Oak House and head down to the Fat Frogg for Trivia on Tuesday nights.
And there are the cooks from The Root who end their Thursdays with a beer at The Oak House.
Smith did not think the lounge would be as busy as it is; in fact, he thought he’d be closing early. He has the opposite problem now: students do not want to leave.
Representatives from student organizations have even started to approach Smith and Ward about hosting events at The Oak House.
Student Union Board SUBLive co-chair Charles Racioppo met with Smith to plan the SUBLive Open Mic Night held during Family Weekend. After the event, students asked Racioppo when The Oak House would host the next SUBLive event.
“There’s nothing definite for next semester,” Racioppo said, “but we want to go out of the box and expand a bit. We want to do something we haven’t done before.”
At the moment, The Oak House is working on ways to attract the community outside of the university. Winter and summer breaks can hurt small businesses at Elon. Smith wants locals to come in, but with floods of Elon students, faculty and staff, he worries that they may not have the best experience.
“We need to plan in thoughtful and intentional ways,” Smith said, “so as to achieve balance without turning away the crowd, but also welcoming the folks outside the Elon community.”