Long before most of us arrived at UR, Starbucks has held a special place in students’ hearts. If you’re looking for an excuse to meet up with friends, or simply need a pick-me-up before your 9:40 a.m., Starbucks is one of the first places on campus you think of. And as synonymous as Starbucks is with a few warm, momentary reprieves from stress of our day-to-day grind, so is its manager Romona Gray — or just Mona for short.
You’ve probably told her your order before, or if you’re a regular, she knew it as soon as she recognized your face. And when Mona’s not at the register taking drink orders or training new employees, she’s chatting and sharing a laugh with students. A few Fridays ago, Mona sat down with me to talk about being an integral part of a campus hub.
Mona’s been manager of Starbucks since 2000, when Java Coffee occupied what we now call Rocky’s, Rocky’s was inside The Pit itself, and the salad bar was stationed where the registers are now. I assumed Mona was a fan of being manager at Starbucks since she’s been working here for 20 years now. When I asked her why she’s stuck around so long, she started to talk excitedly about the relationships she’s fostered with students over the years, while simultaneously memorizing their orders over time.
“If I get regular people that come everyday, I’ll know their drink, and if you’re new, I’ll write down your drink and then I’ll have it.” A few moments after this Mona scanned my face for a quick second and asked, “What do you like, a caramel macchiato?”
I shook my head yes and started to laugh that she’d guessed it correctly, since I’m not a regular by any means, and moments later she let out a laugh as well, giving me a high five.
Even when she’s not at Starbucks, Mona makes sure to keep in touch with some of her customers.
“There’s this one student that comes in […] We keep in contact all the time” Mona said. “When I’m not here, she’s worried about me, so she’ll call me or text me, ‘Oh, are you ok?,’ cause I treat her like family. I know her food, what she eats everyday, her drink and stuff, you know.”
If there’s one thing I took away from my conversation with Mona, it’s that she’s dedicated to making students feel at home when they come to Starbucks — not for the sake of formality, but for the sake of connecting with the students themselves.
“Someone will come in and they might have a bad day, and I say, ‘Get over here right now,’ and then we just talk and laugh. […] I don’t care if you’re Black, white Hispanic, I’m like your mom from home.”
Mona mentioned how students will bring their parents in to meet her, since so many of them call to talk about the conversations they have with her. She makes sure to jokingly warn these students, “I got your parents phone numbers, so if you act up, I’m gonna call your mom or dad.”
Mona later told me her three children are out of college working full time jobs or getting graduate degrees. Building relationships with UR students who are far from home reminds her of when her kids were younger, she said.
“Around Thanksgiving or the holidays, when some students don’t go home, I asked, ‘Where are you gonna be at?’” she said. […] “So I cooked, and I took everyone a container of food […] for Christmas or Thanksgiving. Because see, my kids are old, and I miss my kids being in school like this.”
I always was under the impression that Starbucks was a homey place. But after learning how Mona runs the joint and how close she gets to students, I realized that Starbucks isn’t just homey, but for many, a legitimate home away from home. In these dark times, when it can be hard to feel like anyone is looking out for you, it’s reassuring to know that someone is close and invested in fostering comfort in their community.