Photo: BlogTO, Design: Victoria Yang
I had many goals set for myself upon entering U of T. Managing a fair-trade café was not among them. Yet, a year into university, that’s exactly the position I found myself in. It just goes to show how the best things in life are truly unexpected.
Tucked away in a cozy corner on the first floor of Victoria College’s pink castle — more formally known as “Old Vic” — Caffiends is a second home at U of T for many students. Founded in 2006, it had humble beginnings as a cart in the foyer, aiming to raise awareness about sustainability and fair-trade issues. Now renown across campus for our $1 fair-trade coffee, we also offer vegan, gluten-free, fair-trade, and organic products for 25 cents to $4 maximum. As first-year Victoria Yang describes, “Caffiends is a marriage of a successful, sustainable business and a welcoming student space run by a cohort of over  passionate student leaders and volunteers. Caffiends not only educates volunteers and students on social justice issues and the importance of purchasing fair-trade, ethical products, but fosters an intimate community where students can study, relax, and interact.”
For me, this place has always been so much more than a café. It was love at first sight. I began volunteering in September 2013, and found myself staying behind, waking up early, covering everyone’s shifts, and always resisting the urge to hop behind the counter and grind coffee. It calmed me. In the midst of first-year struggles, Caffiends was my sanctuary. U of T can often be a large, cold, and overwhelming environment. This place was different; it was safe, constant, and always welcomed me with open arms. Students of all years and programs, staff, faculty, and alumni all interact in this room. It brims with positive, inclusive energy, all while providing a nice space for working, reading, or chatting with friends. As a volunteer, I finally began to find a community for myself there.
Caffiends Co-Managers, Julie Zhang (2014) & Linh Nguyen (2014 – 2015)
Photo: Jimmy Dieng
I stepped into my position as Caffiends Co-Manager in April 2014 and was almost immediately greeted with the exceedingly daunting issue of relocation. Caffiends has resided in Old Vic since its conception, but space for academic programming was limited at Victoria College. With the Goldring Student Centre finally open, the hope was to move Caffiends over to the relatively new student space — a move that not all students agreed with, to say the least. The result was a campaign of over a hundred emails to the highest figures in the Victoria College administration, involving many important Vic alumni, past VUSAC presidents, past Caffiends co-managers including founder Anneleen Naudts herself, and even a couple re-tweets from Margaret Atwood! Definitely an interesting start to the job. Although the issue was by no means closed, we were able to stay in the current location for the 2014-2015 school year while discussions continued.
As September dawned, our real work began. Although I could not have asked for a better Senior Co-Manager to begin my term with, it was a very steep learning curve and a lot of work for two full-time U of T students. We decided to open during Frosh week for the first time, hoping to engage more students from the start of the year. As I was also a Frosh leader, the café was quite understaffed. Julie, my co-manager, ended up working 12 hour days. The days leading up to opening included emailing a dozen suppliers, stocking up, hours of cleaning, and scheduling volunteers. I’d never done anything remotely near this scale, so needless to say, it was enormously intimidating.
However, Monday yielded the first of many highlights of my term. Conveniently for us, it was a hot day, and lunch was being served outside with no drinks provided. I stepped into Old Vic and saw the line to Caffiends wind around the foyer, out the door. After a moment of stunned disbelief, I rushed in to help, all while celebrating madly inside.
We had a record number of volunteers sign up after that week and were able to extend our hours by 14 hours compared to the previous year. Throughout September, I took on the role of an anxious mother, nervously sending off her child to preschool. Caffiends was my baby, and I loved it in a way I’d never felt about any work before.
With every position I’d previously taken on, I would labour through the process, and was only happy when I finally achieved the final product. For a while, I wondered whether that was the best it could ever get with a job, whether it was ever possible to truly love any kind of work. Caffiends — although our honorarium is the equivalent of $1.50 an hour — taught me that it was possible. For every milk run we did at 8AM, every two-hour budget meeting, compost run, every text we woke up to notifying us that a machine wasn’t working, every box of chocolate bars carried across town on the subway, I’d never once felt like I didn’t want to do it. It was worth it all when our volunteer schedule filled up completely for the first time ever, when our promotion video was released and reached almost 6000 people, when I saw students I didn’t know carrying our travel mugs on the other side of campus, when the number of Facebook likes on our page doubled in the span of a year, when we made it on BlogTO, when a man came in at the end of the day for a coffee and told me, “I could’ve gone to Starbucks, but I wanted to feel like I was going home.”
I wouldn’t have traded my role for anything in the world and the saddest moment of my year will definitely be when I have to pass on my keys. This place has changed me, and brought me so much more joy and experience than any academic course ever did. In addition to giving me the skills involved in running a business, it taught me so much about myself, about leading, about student needs and our community, and it brought me closer to such amazing people. We couldn’t operate or cater without our wonderfully dedicated volunteer team, and no event or initiative would’ve been possible without the most enthusiastic and proactive exec team in the world. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without this community and it will always have a very special place in my heart.
Photo: Darren Cheng
Design: Victoria Yang