Facing Our El Guapo

Posted more than a year ago.

My family likes to quote movies. And one of our oft-quoted favorites from the eighties is a little gem called Three Amigos.

Surely you’ve seen it. You’re good people, after all.

In it, three washed up silent film stars—Ned, Dusty, and Lucky—attempt the ridiculous: becoming real life heroes by shakily defending a small Mexican town against an infamous bandit, El Guapo.

At the film’s climax, Steve Martin (Lucky), in a rare moment of inspiration, gives a rousing speech that likens the trial of facing El Guapo to the trial of facing any daunting personal challenge:

“In a way, all of us have an El Guapo to face. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo. For us, El Guapo is a big, dangerous man who wants to kill us. But as sure as my name is Lucky Day, the people of Santa Poco can conquer their own personal El Guapo, who also happens to be the actual El Guapo!”

Deep stuff.

It’s probably a little funny and a little sad that this quote has been running through my mind for most of a year. You see, Thrive also has an El Guapo—a big, dangerous project that wants to kill us. For our fundraising teams, El Guapo is 20,000 square feet big and $5.6 million dangerous…

El Guapo is a totally new, modern cafeteria and a fresh, hip coffee shop.

We’ve had these two construction projects in our sights since before Thrive began and for very good reason. After all, what space in your house says “home” more than the dinner table? More than the den where you kick back with family and a cup of fresh brew? But OC’s dinner table is starting to show its age, and our den… well, we don’t really have one...

The Caf.

Built forty years ago and expanded almost twenty years ago, “The Caf,” as we know it, is not an ideal student venue. Designed quite effectively to double as a modular conference space, the OC cafeteria is secluded and institutional in its features. It allows for no free-flowing foot traffic, it has no comfortable seating options (e.g. booths), and not a single ray of natural light graces its floors.

Okay, that might be a little harsh. On paper it sounds like a cave.

In reality, thanks in no small part to the vibrant people and good food you find inside, it’s not a half bad place to eat. And, as a banquet space, it’s really quite nice. But, any university that calls itself “home” should probably reassess when one of its core student spaces is even modestly compared to a utilitarian hole where a bear might doze.*

*I’ve seen some scruffy undergrads in there, by the way, but never a bear.

The Coffee Shop.

Meanwhile, in an institutional space where caffeine and community are hot commodities, we have no venue that can offer both during the waking hours of the day (for a college campus, that’s like 20 out of 24 for those of you counting). And yet, we have this insanely cool glass atrium that’s sitting relatively empty on the second floor of our library. That's a shame, right? Especially when it could look like this:

Coffee Shop Schematic 

Coffee Shop RenderingImages courtesy of Small Architects.

The Need.

In all seriousness, for residential campuses like ours, a cafeteria and coffee shop are pivotal facilities. Modern, inviting, competitive dining spaces foster community, increase student satisfaction, strengthen retention, and boost admissions. Out-of-date or uninviting venues, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect.

Windows. Contemporary food stations. Windows. Restaurant-style seating. Windows. Artisanal coffee. Windows. Come-and-go entrances. Windows. That’s the dream.

That’s the big, dangerous goal we had to chase.

The Challenge.

The cafeteria and coffee shop are daunting projects for several reasons. At $5.6 million dollars, the two spaces outmatch the average Thrive project by a factor of 5-to-1. They’re intricate, too. We need architectural renderings, impact studies, contractor bids, extensive expense projections, and more to even begin building fundraising proposals. And, as fundraisers, we need to learn what all of those things mean before we start talking to donors. Fold a down economy into the mix and you have the recipe for one bold undertaking—the kind that makes you sweat and keeps you up at night.

And it’s done that.

If you’ve wondered why news has been slow this year or why our Thrive thermometers haven’t been climbing at the clip they were in 2014, that’s a big part of the reason. We’ve been in the thick of facing down this behemoth. We’ve been, as my friend Kent Allen puts it, in the midst of “fundraising hand-to-hand combat.”

20 months. More than $10 million in proposals. Countless meetings, phone calls, presentations, and passionate appeals (and re-appeals!). So many conversations that ended in “no.” We always knew this would be a steep hill to climb, but there have been days it's felt like scaling a cliff.

Facing El Guapo.

But, as Steve Martin would be quick to point out, you can’t run from your El Guapo. It demands your attention not because it’s easy but because it’s important, because your community needs you to succeed.

You might remember that last year, given the choice to invest anywhere in Thrive, our students voted to put $275,000 toward the cafeteria. That choice lit a fire in us. It told us we were on the right track and it challenged us to fully tackle this big, dangerous thing before every student voter could graduate. So we have been aggressively on the hunt ever since, fearlessly facing our El Guapo.

And here’s the tremendously savory punch line:

We’re done.


("Wait! What about the details?! What's next? When will we be sipping that glorious caffeinated brew in MLC?" Come back here tomorrow and I'll tell you. Really.)