In between holding Ashlyn and watching a ridiculous amount of baseball while my wife recovered in a hospital room, I discovered "Cafe West," what, at first glance, appears to be a typical hospital cafeteria at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo, Utah. I had eaten at Cafe West three years ago when our first daughter was born and knew the food was good, so I went back the night after Ashlyn was born. It was nearly 11:00 p.m. when I walked down from the hospital room, so I expected things to be pretty quiet. However, when I got to the cafeteria, I was surprised to find nearly 30 college-aged students camped out in a corner of the cafeteria eating, laughing, and just hanging out. And, it was fairly obvious that none of them were patients at the hospital or there to see patients. I went back the next night (mostly out of curiosity, but also for the most amazing onion rings I have ever had in my life) and there was a completely different (and smaller) group of students there.
Provo is a college town, so to see a group of students out enjoying a late night meal at a local gathering place isn't uncommon at all. But, I would never have guessed that gathering place would be a hospital cafeteria. Let alone a cafeteria whose web presence is 4 lines on the general visitor info page of the hospital, who has no signage visible from outside of the hospital, and which a large percentage of the full-time citizens of Provo probably don't know about. What has made Cafe West a gathering place?
I'm guessing here, but these are my hunches:
1. Really good food. No one hangs out at hospitals unless they have a good reason for it. The food is what brings students to Cafe West (and keeps them coming back). Not only does it give them a reason to gather, but facilitates conversation and connection. And, yes, the food is that good. I wasn't lying when I said their onion rings are the best. They make my top 5 milkshake list as well (although there are only 4 flavors to choose from). It also helps that their menu is very simple and easy to navigate--an idea I have blogged about before.
2. Cheap prices. College students, particularly those in Provo, don't like to spend much money on their food (I know this from suffering through six months as a server at a local restaurant where a "good" tip was around 7%). They gather to places where they can hang out, get full, and do it without taking too much of a dent.
3. Unique environment. As far as cafeterias go, Cafe West isn't really all that unique at all (aside from the onion rings & milkshakes). But, as a college hang-out, it's as different and unique as you can find. College students like to feel different and to feel like they have insider knowledge. When you eat at Cafe West for the first time, you feel like you have discovered a hidden gem amidst the relatively boring Provo landscape. I think this adds to the allure and appeal for students.
4. Small and intimate setting. Cafe West couldn't have chairs & tables for more than 60 people and it is tucked away in a back corner of the hospital (just as you come in the "Labor and Delivery" entrance, which is how I found it). What's more, the staff that run the cafe have a knack for making you feel like your welcome there and they're happy to see you (I have a hunch that this is a very intentional effort on the part of hospital administration--Utah Valley Regional Medical Center is part of Intermountain Health Care (IHC), who are well known for their patient-friendly culture and their efforts to embed that culture throughout all parts of the organization, from the housekeeping staff to, apparently, the 20 year old kid who makes shakes in the cafeteria). When I went back on my 2nd night at the hospital, it was the same staff working behind the counter and I got the distinct feeling that they remembered me from the night before. It was also obvious that they were familiar with the "regulars" and called them by name. That's the kind of place people want to go back to and feel comfortable gathering to.
5. Openness and accessibility. Cafe West is open 23 hours a day, which makes it an ideal gathering place for college students who rarely sleep. And, architecturally, it is wide open which facilitates larger groups and makes it easy to see late arrivals, acquaintances, etc. as they walk in (the large group I saw on my first night started with about 10 people and grew and grew as others came). The lightweight, easy-to-move tables and chairs also provide flexibility in accomodating whatever size of group is there to gather.
The thing that I couldn't get over as I watched students and enjoyed onion rings was that Cafe West was never intended to be a gathering place for this demographic, but it happened rather serendipitously because the right conditions were in place. What makes me laugh is that most of the gathering places we try to create inentionally aren't even close to this successful.