The Meantime Coffee Co.: A glance into UNC’s student-run café

By Ellie Heffernan

 At 6:30 a.m. the Chapel Hill sky is far from Tar Heel blue. The sun still hasn’t risen, and the clouds cast a dirty shade of lilac. Most students will not be awake for hours. The unlucky minority with 8 a.m. lectures will try their hardest to roll out of bed at 7:45 a.m., sprint across campus and somehow still arrive on time.

Alyson Cabeza is already riding her cherry-colored moped to the Campus Y. That way, she will arrive on time for her 7 a.m. opening shift as a barista at the Meantime Coffee Co., UNC-Chapel Hill’s nonprofit, student-run coffee shop.

Open for business

If you arrive exactly when the Meantime opens, hoping to witness the first morning rush, you’ll be disappointed. It already happened. The coffee shop technically doesn’t open until 8 a.m., but Cabeza and her co-worker, Ryan Weston, have already served multiple early worms who arrived as they were setting up. 

Handling pressure is second nature to UNC students like Weston and Cabeza. In one way or another, they are experts at jumping through the hoops of the campus rat race. They run from job, to second job, to third job and finally to the library. But they do it so effortlessly that when asked to describe them, your mind initially jumps to words like “lowkey,” “chill” and “down-to-earth” – as opposed to hard-working.

Maybe this is why the Meantime maintains a cult following among students. Why shop here when dozens of other coffee shops in the area sell coffee from Carrboro Coffee Roasters and baked goods from Durham’s Ninth Street Bakery? Maybe the Meantime’s customers are also buying an idea, a goal to work toward.

For students, by students

 They purchase their coffee from student baristas who work hard, play hard and make it look easy. These baristas are the kind of students you wish you could be and maybe already are, although you probably forget it most of the time. That little voice in your head is too busy distracting you, making you feel as though you are the pile of finely ground beans in the Meantime’s pressurized espresso machine. Despite the internships, part-time jobs, extracurricular clubs, and 16 credit hours’ worth of classes, you’re afraid it won’t be enough to win.

 This feeling is familiar to most UNC students, including Cabeza. She typically works at the Campus Y seven hours weekly, which she says is pretty manageable with her school work. She also has a second job working roughly 10 hours weekly in the Global Office at the Campus Y, and she used to have a third job working at the UNC Student Stores.

Weston works at the Meantime about 10 hours weekly and has class today until 6:00 p.m. When asked how many classes he has, he responds modestly.

“That I’m going to?”

He is scheduled to attend four, whether or not he makes it to all of them is another story.

Juggling work at the Meantime with other commitments can be challenging. When the clock nears noon, Weston says the job itself can also get stressful; especially if you are stationed at the espresso machine while an exponentially growing line of people waits for their coffee.

Most customers are patient, but many of them do not realize that espresso-based drinks, such as lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos and mochas, take much longer to make than drip coffee.

For this reason, the Meantime created a giant flowchart explaining the differences between various coffees and teas.  

The flowchart and other signage sprinkled around the coffee shop creates a homespun, yet hip atmosphere. Like many UNC students, the Meantime evokes a sense of carefully constructed effortlessness.

Not like your other beans

When the shop opened, just over five years ago, “The Meantime Coffee Co.” was painted straight onto the Campus Y’s wall using two different fonts. The shop itself is little more than the necessary machines and beans. The only furniture to be found are two wooden serving bars. Along with the wall, they form the Meantime’s small boundaries.

 The Meantime’s baristas exude dogged, independent youth. On a certain level, they do not care what you think about them. This is hinted at by Weston’s choice to sport a bright, flowery apron with little regard for society’s rigid, gender-based rules regarding dress.

 A willingness to challenge the status quo is not surprising for a coffee shop run completely by students. The Meantime’s current CEO, Alaina Plauche, is a UNC senior. Like Cabeza and Weston, she is firing on all cylinders. She has had six internships since starting her undergraduate degree – seven if you include a position as a research assistant.  One of these internships was with the U.S. House of Representatives.

Like the baristas that serve them, the Meantime’s customers engage in hustles of their own. They slink down the Campus Y’s stairs, as the aging wooden floors elicit shrieks in response to their every footstep. They’re already heading to class, coffee in hand, although the Meantime still has not technically opened.

Close to opening time, the Campus Y remains relatively quiet. A few customers shuffle in, but UNC’s campus is largely devoid of human noise. Leaves crunch and birds chirp as nature reclaims the earth. Until campus groundworkers switch on the leaf blowers and Weston bangs the used coffee grounds out of the espresso machine.

 Minus the vrooming and clanging, the Meantime maintains a peaceful atmosphere. Some indie folk song that you can’t quite make out plays in the background. A customer cheerily promises to return tomorrow when her favorite pastry is back in stock.

Coffee that cares

The Meantime’s baristas seem to actually care if you have a good day. Weston says he feels genuine joy when he can provide customers with their morning fix of caffeine. Most customers respond to this gift with kindness – minus the one “coffee connoisseur” who mansplained how to make espressos, says Cabeza.

 For $15 an hour,  plus a free cup of coffee on the shift, a gig like this is worth the difficulties a student might face getting out of bed so early. Most on-campus jobs pay less than $9 an hour.

When asked what they like best about working at the Meantime, Cabeza and Weston don’t initially mention money. The relationships they form with their customers and coworkers are their favorite part of the job.

It’s clear that the Meantime’s staff are good friends outside of work. The wall is dotted with polaroid pictures of baristas hanging out and the entire staff is going on a camping trip this coming weekend. Cabeza says she still doesn’t know where they’re going, and she doesn’t think management knows either.

Friendship is also extended to customers, who like the baristas – and their beans – are constantly on the grind. This is most clear when an older woman sprints in, her hands wrung in prayer, basically shouting as if these students were gods.

 “You guys are lifesavers! LIFESAVERS!” she says, beginning to ramble.

 She had no idea there was a coffee shop here and after the morning she has had, facing bumper to bumper traffic amid construction on Raleigh Road, she needs caffeine. Now.

Cabeza and Weston smile, listen and get to work on making her drink. They get it. After all, they have places to go, too.

Edited by Jake Jeffries and Natalie Huschle