Rad Idea

A new student-run co-op brings sustainable food options to campus.

Photography By: 
Ryan S. Brandenberg, CLA '14
Video By: 
Gina Benigno, SMC '12
Students participate in all facets of the café's operation.

Stop by Ritter Annex at noon on any weekday and you’ll find students eagerly scooping up house-made sweet potato hummus with freshly cut carrots or digging into a salad of locally grown butterhead lettuce and shredded beets.

The scene is the culmination of the vision, determination and years of hard work by Temple students. Rad Dish Co-op café—a completely student-run, cooperative café and the only one of its kind in the region on a university campus—offers budget-friendly, local, organic vegan and vegetarian food. 

Video Production: Gina Benigno, SMC '12

“We were just a bunch of crunchy kids, sitting around complaining that there were no places to go on campus for good coffee or vegetarian and vegan options,” says Tabitha Beasley, CLA ’11, recalling her 2011 senior seminar in environmental studies. The class assignment that spring semester was to develop a project that would improve sustainability on campus. The students’ “client” was Kathleen Grady, director of Temple’s Office of Sustainability. “We all hated chain restaurants and loved gardening,” Beasley remembers. “And we just started spitballing ideas.” One of those spitballs stuck. Five years later, it has evolved into a fullfledged business.

“Not every crazy idea becomes reality, but this one worked,” says Christina Rosan, assistant professor of geography and urban studies in the College of Liberal Arts and instructor of that 2011 seminar. “It took awesome students, terrific faculty and administrators who guided the students along the way—and Grady, who served as an advocate and kept things moving forward.” 

Grady loved the idea the class came up with, so she kept it alive and let it germinate in the minds of students who passed through her office. In 2013 it began to take root.

“It’s a great opportunity for students to learn leadership and entrepreneurship,” says Grady, who serves as the café’s advisor. “And it’s a great way to promote engagement with sustainability issues on campus.” 

The impact is evident on students like Lauren Troop, Class of 2016, who switched her major to entrepreneurship after working to launch Rad Dish. A founding member, Troop got involved after hearing about the idea for it as she was walking out of a class in environmental studies one day. 

“A group of us started meeting in each others’ houses to cook dinner together and talk about what was important to us and what might be possible for the café,” she says. ”As close as we are to Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey farms, it didn’t make sense to us that we had to eat food that has been shipped across the country.”

 Eight of those students participated in a three-credit, independent study with Assistant Professor of Geography and Urban Studies Allison Hayes-Conroy during the spring 2014 semester to nail down the details for getting started. 

“I was encouraged by the way classroom conversations about food inequities could spill out into the hallways and later emerge in a business model,” says Hayes-Conroy. “The students really were exploring how to [execute] food acquisition and distribution differently,” she says.

What emerged that spring was a structure and a set of guiding principles for a unique campus café. It boasts a democratic, member-controlled governing body. It sells food made from fruits and vegetables that are either locally and seasonally available or organically grown. Equally important is that the produce used in the café’s recipes comes from farms where workers are treated fairly and given a living wage. The café also supports composting of pre consumer waste: Five gallons per week is diverted to the composting bin and Temple Community Garden. And it employs a zero-waste policy, which means that a business goal each day is to sell out of perishable products by closing time. 

Jim Creedon, senior vice president for construction, facilities and operations, was intrigued and eager to see if the students could pull it off from a business perspective. He helped them secure a space in Ritter
Annex that the university’s food service vendor was vacating. 

“The café is still in its infancy, but it’s exciting to see the students on their way,”says Creedon, who serves on Rad Dish’s Board of Advisors. 

"Not every crazy idea becomes reality, but this one worked."
-- Christina Rosan, Assistant Professor of Geography and Urban Studies, College of Liberal Arts

With the space secured and $30,000 in seed funding from the Office of Sustainability, the co-op launched in spring 2015.

When you order a cup of freshly roasted, freshly brewed coffee or a bottle of Smiles, a fruit drink promising to stabilize mood and blood sugar levels in the brain, you might not realize that it comes from a local, alumni-owned business: Green Street Coffee and Neuron Nectars, respectively. Or that the slice of vegan apple cake you’re about to devour was made at alumni-owned Wildflour Bakery. 

You also might be pleasantly surprised to learn that the young man with black hair peeking from beneath his wool cap who is preparing your meal to background notes of “Simple Song” by The Shins, first up on Spotify’s Rad Songs Punk playlist, also has voted on the policies that make your access to Smiles possible. 

From the beginning, Rad Dish has been run with a cooperative governance structure to ensure all members have equal say in how the café is operated.

Clearly, the co-op concept itself is not new; it’s been around since the ’70s. But the movement has been attracting renewed interest, particularly since the launch in 2010 of the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive, a nonprofit that helps students across the country get food cooperatives going. Troop, along with accounting major Trevor Southworth and communication studies major Rhiannon Wright, both Class of 2017, attended the directive’s 10-day learning institute last summer.

“Being a co-op has been helpful and positive because the responsibility for the café is shared, and everyone is so passionate and gets to provide input,” Troop says. “But it also means things move slowly. It takes a long time to make a decision when a lot of people are involved.” 

Members are those who have paid a onetime $25 fee (equity members), volunteer 10 hours a week at the café (sweat equity members) or work there (employee members).
Currently the café is run by roughly 100 members, the majority of whom are equity members who represent a wide range of majors. 

Employee member Sidney Buckingham, Class of 2018, got involved after spending her first year at Temple living in a residence hall. “Trying to eat vegan in the dining halls just wasn’t working for me,” the landscape architecture major explains.

At $500 in sales daily, the café isn’t putting the dining halls or campus food trucks out of business. Though it is currently operating at a slight loss, it is on track with a six-year financial plan to be operating in the black in a year or two. But there’s no doubt that sticking to its sourcing policy can be an obstacle to profitability. 

“We consciously choose to use sources that respect the supply chain, so we are paying full price for our ingredients, and making our products affordable is challenging,” Troop says. It’s those challenges that make this a valuable academic exercise, Grady says. 

“For example, in the beginning the students based their pricing on what they thought their customers would be willing to pay,” Grady says. “They’ve since figured out that ingredients and staffing costs must factor into their pricing.” 

As café manager, Emily Cornuet, TYL ’15, handles Rad Dish’s daily operations and catastrophes. “If we run out of chickpeas—the main ingredient in many of our menu options—coming up with a replacement quickly to maintain sales is key,” she explains. “When that happened last semester, we used black beans and sold a black bean and sold a black bean hummus instead.”

After graduating with a degree in sculpture, Cornuet hopes to open her own café one day: She is currently completing a master’s in innovation management and entrepreneurship in the Fox School of Business. “I am learning a lot about inventory maintenance, and my communication and people skills have improved a lot since being a part of Rad Dish,” she says.

Building a sense of community on campus is another one of the café’s goals. Monthly open mic nights featuring musicians, poets and other artists typically draw around 100 students. 

“Rad Dish has obviously piqued the interest of vegetarians and vegans through the food we serve, giving options to them and anybody else who is conscious about where their food comes from,” says Southworth, the head of the Rad Dish finance committee. “But it has also become a space for a lot of different students to come together and work on something that excites them.” 

And as a part of the goal of developing sustainable practices and promoting conversations around issues of social justice, Rad Dish also extends into the community to develop collaborative events, such as a health and wellness fair for low-income families held at nearby Beckett Life Center. 

Southworth explains: “We are continuing, as we always have, to establish connections with North Philadelphia neighborhoods, reaching out when we can to community kitchens, homeless shelters and churches and trying to see where Rad Dish can fit in there.”