Kim Smith, associate director of retail dining operations for Harvard University Dining Services, is the administrative mastermind behind the reopening of campus cafes like Barker.
Kim Smith, associate director of retail dining operations for Harvard University Dining Services, is the administrative mastermind behind the reopening of campus cafes like Barker. By Courtesy of Kim Smith

The Return of Barker, Queen of Cafes

After an almost three year hiatus due to the pandemic, student cafes on campus are coming back.
By Sophie S. Goodman and Jeffrey Q. Yang

Students clad in chunky sweaters, Doc Martens, a Basquiat t-shirt, or a funky, colorblock jacket recline on plush leather couches as “Dreams” by The Cranberries plays softly in the background. You guessed it: we’re in Barker Cafe. After an almost three year hiatus due to the pandemic, student cafes on campus are coming back.

Central to this operation is Kim Smith, associate director of Retail Dining Operations for Harvard University Dining Services. A South Shore native, Smith was trained as a pastry chef in culinary college. She first worked at Au Bon Pain for 10 years while getting a masters degree from Cambridge College, before joining HUDS in 2003. Over the past year, Smith has been charged with overseeing the hiring process and re-opening of all student run cafes with warm Bostonian charm.

The biggest challenge to the reopening was finding student workers, Smith says. When she posted the jobs at the cafes in August, Smith says she expected Lamont cafe to receive the most applications, as had been the case pre-pandemic. Instead, she found more student enthusiasm for Barker.

“I’m really happy to see life again,” Smith says. This recent revitalization of student cafes, though, is not the only time Smith has helped campus spaces blossom in her 20-year tenure. As the manager that first opened Lamont Cafe and later oversaw Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub, Smith has witnessed these spaces grow into communities around her.

“Those two places are near and dear to my heart. They're like my babies,” Smith says. “When we first opened Lamont probably 12 years ago, we weren’t sure how Harvard students would feel about serving Harvard students, but year over year, it’s become the thing to do.”

The students working in the cafes prior to the pandemic largely took the businesses into their own hands, especially those in managerial positions.

“We get students who have a business mind and creative mind,” Smith says. “We structure it to give them some kind of business experience as well in managing their peers, which sometimes can be hard to do. But we always have that student who wants more and wants to take on more.”

Student workers often grow close to Smith — she has received wedding invitations and often grabs brunch with visiting alumni — and some have even recruited others to work at cafes. Smith recalls having students coming back to grad school asking for a job again, or graduates who tell their younger siblings to seek her out for a job. “I have a very easy name to remember,” Smith says with a chuckle.

Under student leadership, the cafes advanced strongly in the years before the pandemic. Each cafe also developed its own distinct character. The Barker Cafe “was always a little bit more eclectic,” Smith says. “It drew a more of, I would say, kind of a creative student.”

Lamont Cafe, instead, attracted “the night owls” because it was open until 2 a.m., Smith says. “The students hang out there and they sleep there sometimes.”

Then the pandemic hit and in March 2020, all students were sent home. For Smith, that meant closing all the cafes, which she says was “devastating” for her and the student workers. “We were all just crying because we really didn't know what was going to happen.”

Even once some students returned to campus for the 2020-2021 school year, the cafes remained closed, leading to a loss in both institutional knowledge and in the general excitement of working at a cafe.

“Everyone graduated, everyone’s moved on,” Smith says. “So we’re starting from scratch in every single location. It’s really tragic and sad.”

In spite of this challenge, Smith says she’s hopeful that the cafes will return to full capacity. But first she needs students to fill the shifts — particularly at Lamont Cafe, which has yet to reopen. “My belief is if a student wants to work, if I have a position for them, or hours that will work for them, I will hire them,” Smith says.

Christine Lee ’23, a barista at Barker Cafe and current Crimson Blog editor, says many of her colleagues are seniors who experienced the cafes as freshmen. For Lee, her fond memories of Barker inspired her to come back and work at the cafe.

“The smell of the coffee and the music, everything combined just felt like such a wonderful space, a beautiful little corner on campus to hide away and do work, or chat with friends, or eat, or you know, catch your breath,” she says. “I think that was what made it so special to me.”

Lee credits Barker’s successful reopening to Smith’s support during the first week.

“She was there for every single shift. And Barker is by no means a small undertaking,” Lee says. “I think this week so far has been a lot more manageable for us knowing that we’ll be slowly going into doing this independently.”

Lee adds that Smith’s warm personality and extensive experience gave her staff a sense of confidence in their own work.

“She’s just so incredibly easy to get along with, such a reassuring presence, and generally someone who you can tell is competent in a way that you can only be after having so many years of experience in the kind of position that she occupies,” she says. “I think that's especially important for students like me who are entering into this kind of job with no background.”

Smith is planning for Lamont Cafe to open the week of Nov. 14, but with a new schedule: it will operate on Fridays and weekends, rather than every day. She recognizes that Lamont and other cafes might look different from the pre-pandemic operations and thathe future of the cafes will depend on the Harvard community. “What does the community want it to be?” Smith asks. “We take it from there.”

She is confident that once the cafes begin reopening, their presence in student life will create interest. And it’s already happening at Barker: even though the cafe opened only last week, students fill every table. It’s easy to understand why.