Brewing Business, The Motley Way

by Nicole Burkholder Walsh '99

Women are a blur behind the counter, brewing coffee, making espresso drinks, arranging, then rearranging, food in the display case. I walk in to find the chair I have considered “mine” since my undergraduate days taken. Resigned, I move to a table and notice that the Motley, though changed, seems as comfortable and familiar as when I was a student. It smells like home, though I can’t pinpoint the aroma; it’s a mix of warm roasted coffee, spiced teas, and baked goods. Like any family room, the Motley has couches, tables, armchairs, even blankets and pillows. Women and men alike sprawl throughout the room, wrapped in blankets, reading, talking, gingerly sipping from steaming mugs. They appear unaware that this is a public place, not their own personal space. But, that’s the Motley—a place where anyone can think, read, share a laugh with friends, or just be.

There is something very Scrippsian here, something words alone fail to capture. Conceived and created by resolute students who sought to fill a perceived void, the business is now driven by the values of ethics, environmentalism, activism, and politics—values that a Scripps education instills in us. The Motley would not be the same in any other college because Scripps students made it, and then made it flourish.

The Motley to the View opened in 1975 as a student-operated, -managed, and -organized enterprise. Inspired by the view of Mount Baldy from its original location in Balch Hall (now the Registrar’s Office), and a Shakespearean passage—”Alas, ’tis true, I have gone here and there and made myself a motley to the view”—the name continues to reflect the women who work in the coffeehouse and those who frequent it.

The word “motley” means “diverse, assorted,multicolored, mixed,” the opposite of uniform.The Motley women—those who have run the coffeehouse over the years—fit the description perfectly—they are anything but uniform.

Anne Kuiper Ainsworth ’77, one of the students originally involved in the creation of the Motley, remembers their initial motive to start a business:”We wanted a home campus alternative to CMC’s Hub, Pomona’s Coop, and the Pit at Harvey Mudd. We needed our own place to relax and meet the Scripps students who lived in other dorms. We hoped, too, that it would provide a place for faculty and students to have more personal interaction, and that eventually students from the other colleges would make it their hangout of choice.”

Only a few studentsconceptualized and then undertook this venture. Junior Mardi Washburne Piepgras ’76, along with sophomores Ainsworth and Alison Cooke ’77, were among those who, with funds from the student body and an anonymous supporter, built this enterprise from scratch. According to Ainsworth, opening and sustaining the Motley would not have been possible without the support of faculty and staff, including then-Director of Financial and Business Affairs Jay Gerber, who served as the Motley’s first advisor, and former Director of Buildings and Maintenance Mildred Berger, who helped secure city permits and bring the space to health code standards. One faculty member, Samella Lewis, donated countless hours to help get the coffeehouse up and running. Lewis downplays her role: “The students did the real work,” she relates. “I lent support because I strongly believed that the campus needed a central gathering place—I provided some ideas, contacts,and worked with faculty and staff to garner the support necessary.”

April 14, 1975, the Motley to the View officially opened its doors to a capacity crowd. The Claremont Collegian student newspaper reported: “The courtyard was full of people drawn by the music and the aroma of rich coffees and homemade bread.” The early coffeehouse menu was as inviting as its décor. Employees baked and sold cookies and apple strudels, while the beverage selections included teas, coffees, and espresso. Customers could sprawl, study, or sit on comfortable furniture purchased at flea markets and thrift stores. A health food store in Pomona donated the counter, centerpiece to any burgeoning business. A local live band provided opening-night music. It seemed like everyone—employees, customers, faculty, staff, thecommunity at large—was rooting for this place to thrive.

Even the Collegian reviewer could perceive that this was a legacy in the making, predicting that if the opening night was any indication of the future, the Motley “is going to be a huge success.”

Fastforward two years, and the Motley had become the place to go to for coffee,lunch, and study breaks. However,in running this bona fide business,the Motley staff was discovering the issues that come with ownership. At the same time they were learning how to spot potential problems, they were learning how to handle them.

In a college environment colored by constant change, how can a business maintain consistency in management and practices? For the Motley, this has been an unending challenge, requiring fluid job descriptions, and ultimate flexibility and commitment.

Lynne Winslow ’78, head Motley manager during her freshman and sophomore years, recalls how her job duties were designed early on: “From our primary advisor, Jay Gerber, I learned how to balance the books. However, I was also responsible for the shopping, buying, scheduling, cooking, opening, closing—and everything in between.”

“We tried to establish a process for personnel replacement. At the beginning of each year, a manager would select an ‘in the ranks’ employee. Throughout that year, this selected student would undergo training in addition to her other duties; presumably, that student would then be ready to move into a management position the following year. Even this process did not guarantee smooth sailing.”

The Motley women have regularly dealt not only with employee turnover but with relocation after relocation. Housed in Balch throughout the 70s and 80s, the coffeehouse eventually was evicted to accommodate the growing Scripps administration and relocated to a basement studio in the Old Lang Art Building—what is now part of the Malott Commons. Here, the business earned the unofficial name of the “Motley Underground.” The crew remained in this location until construction work began on the Commons, in 1998. Then with a sigh, the vagabond Motley packed up again and plunked down its belongings in temporary digs in Frankel/Routt Dining Hall, in a space that had previously served as an exercise room.

Throughout the 90s, the Motley valiantly held on to its customer volume (though profit margins remained dicey) through a combination of collaboration, struggle, and adaptability. The multiple moves taught many valuable lessons, including how to best accommodate and deal with the one constant of change. Together, the women who weathered the “moving years” devised new strategies to attract clientele to unfamiliar locations. They improved methods of accounting and budgeting, divided management responsibilities more evenly by creating new positions, and labored to recreate the unique Motley atmosphere in each location.

Today,the lessons learned and battles fought have paid off, big time. The Motley has finally secured its permanent home in a beautifully renovated space off Seal Court and is at its most successful juncture in its nearly 30-year history; the once simple shop is now a significantprofit-building enterprise. The current crop of Motley managers intend to maintain this success by generating fresh ideas to keep the Motley appealing and relevant to a new generation of clientele. “Board plus dollars” from the campus dining program of not only Scripps, but the other Claremont Colleges, have provided a financial platform that sustains the enterprise.

The students who ran the Motley at the beginning, and those who do so today, are thrown into the business, given a few notes or a folder from a previous manager, but mainly expected to just figure it out. This “trial by fire” helps make the Motley what it is. A constant stream of new management breathes life into the Motley,creating a business that thrives because it changes.

When asked what they think has kept the Motley viable throughout the years, current co-head managers Erin Singer ’04 and Mara Sobesky ’04 agree: “Women run it, and women drive its direction, and have for 30 years—an anomaly in the business world, and one that likely won’t be repeated outside the Scripps campus. Each of us is proud to be part of that heritage. We also believe that perpetual change has created an environment like no other. Each new manager strives to add her own personal touch—a legacy that we can build on as the studentbody changes.”

On a recent spring afternoon, we asked students what they were doing at the Motley:

  • “Creative bashing for an art project.”
  • “Taking a nap.”
  • “Reading Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness.”
  • “Studying for the MCAT.”
  • “If the couch is open, then my friends and I sit and have political discussions”
  • “Reading The Turn of the Screw for psychoanalysis in literature class.”

Singer notes that the Motley has never been only about selling coffee. Its mission is also to learn and practice good business. “Our predecessors built a company whose cornerstone is growth and change. This structure enables us to offer a tangible, meaningful, and unique professional experience for every woman who joins our staff. Mara and I want to foster independent thinking, and provide opportunities that would not otherwise be available. As co-head managers, we encourage each employee to think ethically, environmentally, and socially about the business and act accordingly.” (Note: currently the Motley hires only work-study students.)

To support the Motley’s goals, Singer and Sobesky practice consensus building. According to Sobesky: “Although each employee has her own responsibilities and duties, we try to make the larger business decisions with consensus because we respect that each person’s unique perspective and opinion can contribute to the Motley’s ultimate success and longevity.”

Now, more than ever, the current staff of approximately 50 women baristas and managers are increasingly dedicated to
serving up coffee with a conscience.

Like any major corporation, the Motley circa 2004 has a mission statement that drives its business philosophy:

“The Motley Coffeehouse is devoted to building business experience for women since 1975. As a coffeehouse run by students for students, we strive to empower the women who comprise our staff, as well as the college community we serve. Thus, we are committed to offering our business and space to positively impact others. In conjunction with this, we seek to provide quality coffee products from socially responsible companies that reflect the ideals of our organization. In all, the Motley experience is not only one of dedication to the coffee we serve, but to our goal of positive and responsible business.”

But unlike many major corporations, the Motley is not content to create a statement and pin it to the wall; instead, it is vigilant about practicing what it preaches. In daily operations, the Motley has committed to a standard of purchasing only Fair Trade Certified coffee, a practice which, at other coffeehouse chains, is seldom followed because of increased costs. Coffee is the second largest U.S. import after oil, and the U.S. consumes one-fifth of all the world’s coffee, making it the largest consumer in the world; Fair Trade certification ensures that the manual labor behind this import is not exploited and, in fact, supports community programs including health and education. In 2003, after researching this cause, Motley managers chose to join the fight by establishing strict purchasing standards, and to serve as an active local voice, dedicated to educating their own consumer base on Fair Trade coffee.

The coffeehouse actively seeks to sponsor campus community events, performances, and art exhibitions aimed at stimulating political, environmental, and social awareness and dialogue. One example can be seen on the central wall of the Motley behind the stage, where, each year, a mural idea is proposed, selected, then created. The mural then serves as a subtle yet central focal point for coffeehouse discussion.

The Motley is now so much more than just a space where the caffeine-depleted can score a fresh cup of java. It is a well-loved place where political discussion can thrive, diverse student groups can voice their concerns, and a community can come together.

The originators of this coffeehouse couldn’t have hoped for more.