Cougar Grounds, the student-run coffeehouse at the University of Houston, recently moved into expanded quarters that better service the campus. Nearly twice the size of the original, the more central location is better suited to serve students, staff and faculty.
The operation, launched in 2008, saw business plummet early in the COVID pandemic, but it’s come back strong. It opened on a Wednesday in August and was packed within two days.
“The pandemic years were down, but this semester has started about 70 percent over this time last year,” says general manager Sean Lawless. Lawless is the only non-student involved in the coffeehouse.
Lawless planned out the contemporary, colorful space, working with a designer on customer seating areas. He is a fanatic about keeping up with industry trends, from menu curation to the latest technology.
“We’ve created a space that is visually impressive, operationally impressive and product-wise impressive as well,” he observes.
With a menu curated by Lawless, the campus gathering spot serves single origin coffees from local roasters along with smoothies and teas. Coffee is served in seven different styles. Savory kolaches and sweet pastries fill the display cases. Food items are sourced from local bakeries or an on-campus full-service restaurant.
“We continue to mix it up,” says Dennis Reynolds, dean of the university’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership. “We use this as a learning lab for our students so they will see you can’t just be static.”
The coffeehouse and a second location in a health sciences building are operated separately from University of Houston dining services, which Chartwells handles. “We’re independent because this is a learning experience,” Reynolds says. “We’re not trying to compete with dining services.”
Cougar Grounds is reportedly the first university coffee house run by students as part of a corollary curriculum. Students learn about entrepreneurial functions such as supply management, operations, marketing and payroll. With two locations, they also learn about multi-unit management.
“We structured it so students get a real experience,” Reynolds says. “They work hard—it’s a point of pride for them. They look at financials and learn in class about calculating food costs and, now that we’re open and fully running, we will be integrating financials from the shop in our courses. They are intertwined.”
“The goal for everything we do is to make sure we’re teaching students about tomorrow, not yesterday,” Reynolds says.
“Cougar-istas” train with student managers to gain proficiency in producing the beverages—nearly 800 drinks every day. They also learn about the latest coffeehouse technology, including an innovative ordering system, programs that help ensure efficient production and a high-quality product, and real-time sales tracking.
Typically students sign up for a part-time schedule, although the student managers often work longer hours. They also tend to stay on the job as long as they can, showing great loyalty to Lawless, Reynolds says. Their shifts count toward the college’s graduation requirement that undergraduates work 1,000 hours.
Reynolds says handcrafted drinks are one of the ways Cougar Grounds succeeds at capturing traffic that might otherwise be siphoned off by Starbucks. So is the central campus location. “We’re creating a different experience than Starbucks,” he notes, pointing out how much Starbucks has automated production. “We’re doing things the way they did in Italy a long time ago—handmade drinks, ground to order. This is an art the students have to be trained in, and they are good,” he adds.
The atmosphere is another draw. Comfy beanbag chairs and a friendly vibe appeal to students, staff and faculty; many of them have become daily customers.
Cougar Grounds stands to get even busier in February 2023, when a $30-million expansion and renovation at the Hilton University of Houston are on track to debut. The hotel is a short walk from the coffeehouse, and Reynolds says hours may be extended to accommodate an anticipated bump in traffic. Now the operation is open throughout weekdays but follows a limited schedule on weekends.