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Counter Culture

The Coop Fountain serves up comfort food, a funky mix of tunes and a very casual attitude. For students, it’s a place to grab a late-night snack or just kick back. Staff and faculty flock there for free sodas and quick meals. Alumni return to reminisce.

Dating back to the 1930s, the Coop has been around longer than the 47 phenomenon and for much longer than Smith Campus Center, its current home.

Generations of Sagehen chefs have learned to fry at the Coop. Today, the Fountain employs 45 students from the five colleges. Some are shy or quiet people, said Manager Brenda Schmit, but “working at the Coop really brings them out of their shell. It is great to watch them grow.”

Erin Noble ’07 and Hal Wershow ’07 are dedicated “Coopsters” who enjoy their jobs. Both students are rambunctious guys who started their careers at the Coop with very little cooking experience.

However, with a little training, they learned how to perfect a chicken quesadilla, handle a busy Friday night shift, and they even became creative with their cooking. Noble and Wershow said they especially like it when their friends come in and they order “fun sandwiches” such as Wershow’s own creation, a cheesestick sandwich. Noble encourages people to try his “Bananas a la Erin,” a specialty that only dedicated customers know about.

Jill Lombardi ’07 is a new employee of the Coop, and she is still enjoying getting to know the inner workings. “I just learned how to make a great milkshake,” Lombardi says. “It’s important to make sure it has just the right thickness.” Milkshakes are undoubtedly one of the most popular items on the Coop’s menu, along with the famous curly fries that are hard to resist after a late night study session or a long weekend night spent dancing at a campus party.

Two trademarks of the Coop are the hats and the music. Employees are required to cover their hair, but most are very creative with their choices, ranging from knit caps to bandannas to neon, ’80s-inspired visors. Noble explains that his “bright pink hat embodies (his) super chef powers.

The tunes employees play are equally eclectic, ranging from Johnny Cash to Outkast, from the Beatles to Nirvana. Employees are allowed to choose the music that plays throughout the day, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what they will hear when they walk in the door.  “I like any music I can dance around to," says Wershow.

The Coop also has been a place for Sagehens to find romance. Schmit said that she has heard of many Pomona couples meeting at the Coop. Schmit has even met married couples that come back to the Coop years later to reminisce. She slyly mentioned that two of her employees became a couple while working the same shift.

Busy faculty and staff stop in for a fast lunch or a jolt of caffeine.

Chemistry Professor Dan O’Leary eats here about once a week, grabbing a bacon cheeseburger or, if he’s really rushed, a tuna sandwich. “It’s probably the one place on campus where I run into other faculty on a regular basis,” he says. “It’s got that kind of social effect to it.”

O’Leary also acknowledges that the free sodas for faculty and staff are part of the attraction. “That pulls me in,” he says.

David Scott, director of stewardship and memorial funds, is a Coop regular, coming two or three times a week for a grilled cheese or BLT. "A gathering place like the Coop is an icon of a small college, a 'hub' of student life,’’ he says. “And it reminds me of my college years.”

As for the food, Scott adds: “Best bacon in town, no question!”

Shakes, burgers, quesadillas and chicken tenders are top sellers, and Schmit said the menu hasn’t changed much during her more than ten years as manager.

But the Coop has adapted to the times in other ways. Recently, the Coop made efforts to become more environmentally friendly. At the recommendation of Pomona’s Environmental Quality Committee (EQC), the Coop now serves food in reusable plastic baskets instead of paper plates, and uses small paper to-go cartons instead of plastic boxes.

And faculty and staff may be pleased to learn of another change: The Coop Fountain will be open for lunch this summer for the first time in years.


SIDEBAR:  The story behind the Coop's name and its many moves

Over the decades, the Fountain’s location has changed but its special place in Pomona life has remained the same.

The restaurant originally was in Pomona’s Edmunds Student Union, which opened in 1937 and was also known as the Coop. The nickname either derived from the first ASPC store run as a cooperative, or from an area in one of the original College buildings which was used to sell books and sundries and was called the “little coop,” according to Granite and Sagebrush, a history of the College written by Frank Brackett.

The soda fountain moved to a new wing of Edmunds in 1950 during the first expansion of the Coop. The Pomona College Bulletin described the “striking modern appearance” of the new digs, with irregular counters and large sliding glass doors along one side.

By 1969, the fountain had become “grimy and sadly in need of complete reequipping and refurbishing,” according to the Bulletin. The eatery found temporary sanctuary in a trailer during a major renovation of Edmunds (a.k.a. the Coop), and students had to get by with a menu reduced to drinks and sandwiches – no grill. The Fountain returned in 1970 to the remodeled Edmunds, billed in a press release as “more sophisticated in appearance, outgoing, expressive, socially aware and ‘turned on’ to the modern-day needs of the college community.”

In 1997, The Coop Fountain temporarily shifted into in the Walker Fishbowl as most of the Edmunds Union was torn down to make way for the new Smith Campus Center, which became the fountain’s permanent home when construction ended.

In 2002, a stairway was added to enhance the flow between the Smith Campus Center’s upstairs recreation room and the first-floor Coop Fountain. Today, the College is considering plans to move the recreation area to the bottom floor, connected to the Coop Fountain, just as it was years ago. -- Maggie Fick and Mark Kendall