Williams Fresh Cafe in Brantford Market Square closes doors
On May 28, 2019, the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union announced that the Williams’ Cafe in Brantford Market Square will be officially closing its doors on May 31 — an unfortunate, precautionary reaction to changes being made in the federal funding structure for universities.
“In January, when the provincial government announced their changing funding model for how student associations across the province are funded … [because] our student fees are approximately 40-45 per cent of our revenue … we had to look all our operations to see, well, if some of our fees are going away [and] where else are we potentially challenged,” said Chris Turner, director of finance & administration for the Students’ Union.
Because of this, the Students’ Union was forced to re-evaluate the efficacy and financial impact of all its operations. The Williams franchise in Brantford was one area which they simply could not afford to keep open, given the uncertainty regarding funding in the coming months.
“[William’s was] always one that has struggled financially for us; given the uncertainty in the changes surrounding the funding environment, when we looked across all our models … and we made the unfortunate and tough decision to have to shut it down last week,” Turner said.
“With the new funding model, we won’t know exactly what’s going to happen until August-September, when we know actually how [students will] opt-out.”
Another important factor when considering shutting down the location was the unique restrictions imposed upon the union by franchise requirements.
“When you run a franchise like Williams, there are franchise requirements requiring you to keep it open year-round. It’s a real struggle in Brantford in the summertime. There just isn’t the volume of local businesses downtown and students are all gone, and that’s one of the things that [when evaluating] … played into our decision, ultimately,” Turner said.
This is different, however, from the Golden Grounds Coffee House that the Students’ Union also operates on the Brantford campus, as it can be closed and opened as necessary during the summer months, when there are fewer students, and can be re-opened in September when they return.
The Students’ Union expressed its condolences for the loss that the Brantford campus will suffer due to this, especially regarding how it will affect the full and part-time students and staff who worked there.
“People are saddened, people are disappointed, rightfully so … it was part of the Brantford Laurier culture and community for 12 years. A lot of the staff, a lot of the community members, some of the businesses, have been very loyal,” said Jeyas Balaskanthan, director of hospitality services for the Students’ Union.
I think the biggest loss is that gathering place, the staff who worked there — student staff who had [part-time] hours and also the full-time staff who worked there, who we aimed to provide a living for … they were part of it, they were part of the community, so those are some of the unfortunate parts of it … we didn’t have any other choices.
“I think the biggest loss is that gathering place, the staff who worked there — student staff who had [part-time] hours and also the full-time staff who worked there, who we aimed to provide a living for … they were part of it, they were part of the community, so those are some of the unfortunate parts of it … we didn’t have any other choices.”
Because of this shift, the Students’ Union has been diverting staff and resources to ease the transition for those who previously worked at the Williams Brantford location.
“[Regarding] full-time staff, with the help of Chris [Turner] and Phil [Champagne], [they] have gone above-and-beyond to make sure that we are taking care of them, and the student staff we have communicated that right now they won’t have the jobs when they come back in September,” Balaskanthan said.
The Students’ Union is planning to move a number of full-time staff to the Golden Grounds location, to ensure that their working lives are disrupted as little as possible.
“For the duration that it’s open in the fall and winter, it does pretty good. So [there will be a] job opportunity with that … [and] potentially some expanded hours,” Balaskanthan said.
Despite the uncertainty in the coming years, the Students’ Union still plans to move forward with their goal of having a student social gathering location for the Laurier Brantford campus, similar to Wilf’s or The Turret on the Laurier Waterloo campus.
“We don’t how that’s going to evolve, because of William’s’ closure, so we’ll look at that to make sure it’s financially sustainable and [make sure] it’s providing to the students. At some point, our hope is that there is something in Brantford — and we don’t know what that is,” Balaskanthan said.
Any future plans will be a collaborative effort between the Students’ Union, the Graduate Student Association and the university. And while the union understands that there needs to be an option for Brantford students on their campus, for the time being, it isn’t possible from a financial perspective.
One of the other major obstacles the Students’ Union will have to deal with, regarding the Brantford campus, will be navigating the two-year non-compete clause they have with Williams, making it unlikely that they will pursue a similar franchise agreement in the future.
“We wouldn’t open anything different until at least two years have passed — and even then we would only open something if we’ve crunched all the numbers and it looked like it would be viable from a financial [perspective],” Turner said.
“Because one of our goals, as a student union, is to provide opportunities, a) for the students there to have a place to eat, but also to give some jobs to the students as well, so if we can make it work, we would definitely look at that.”
“But we’ve got that two-year window that we have to think about. Given what I just explained about Williams itself and how the model works with the franchise, I don’t think we’d ever really look at going back under a franchise model, whether it’s with Williams or another company,” he said.
Regarding what will be done with the Market Square space, because the building is owned and operated by the university, that decision will be under their discretion.
But for the time being, the Students’ Union will be focussing their efforts on evacuating and cleaning the space — and planning for the future.
“There’s going to be some sort of a social gathering and student interaction space [in Brantford] … our hope is that, over the next few years, we’ll be able to … provide for the student population there,” Balaskanthan said.