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Cafe Disco: Student-centered ‘success’ celebrates fourth year

Students line up for lunch at Cafe Disco On the Iowa City campus on March 4. Photo by Jessica McWilliams
Café Manager Mike Cover and founder Steven Abram, who have worked together as a team for four years, serve students lining up for lunch at Café Disco at the Iowa City campus on March 4. Photo by Jessica McWilliams.

Café Disco opened in the 2017/18 school year and is now celebrating its fourth year serving the students at the Kirkwood Iowa City campus using a unique approach to providing affordable, locally sourced meal options.   

Steven Abram, professor of management and computer business applications, explained that a series of different companies, organizations, and programs tried unsuccessfully to provide the Iowa City campus with a café experience that worked because they weren’t serving students what they wanted. 

Working with the dean, Abram set out to find out what it was that students desired in a meal on campus. “We started asking students, passing out papers in classes asking students questions about what they wanted to be served…they wanted hot dogs, sandwiches, coffee and pizza and they wanted it fast. The one thing that we heard over and over was that it had to be cheap,” Abram said. 

Café Disco provides many meal and snack options, none of which cost more than $5. “Being a restaurant in a community college…you can’t generate more sales than the students you have. I wasn’t under pressure to make a profit, just to break even,” Abram continued.  

After asking students what they wanted, Abram took that information and sought out local vendors who could supply those food options at affordable prices, creating partnerships that brought food in from the Red Pepper Deli, Oasis Falafel and Papa Murphy’s, among others.  

The menu outside Café Disco showcases drink prices.
The menu outside Café Disco showcases drink prices. Photo by Jessica McWilliams.

“We offer hot food items every day, we have pizza, hot dogs, paninis and a soup of the day as well,” Abram said. 

He added that Café Disco is always open to suggestions for new food items, which has led to the inclusion of halal, vegetarian and healthy options in addition to paninis, pastries, gourmet espresso beverages and more. “If you try to give students what they think they want they won’t buy it,” Abram said.  

Café Disco has zero food waste and discounts everything at the end of the week so that is all sells and students get a good deal before the weekend, according to Abram. 

The expansive, affordable menu is complemented by the namesake disco lights and music, warm atmosphere with art on the walls, and an environment that is welcoming and inclusive. 

“The feedback we’ve received has been extremely positive…the café is always busy and has become a social gathering space,” Abram said.  

Abram went on to explain that the success of the café was based on offering students’ choices that they wanted, at a price that they could afford, while designing an environment that supported Kirkwood’s mission to increase student engagement. 

“After we got it up and running and proved we could do this, Kirkwood has been very supportive of this model as a service that we provide to the students,” Abram continued. 

Image courtesy of Jessica McWilliams | Kirkwood Communiqué

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