Social media dispute leaves students wondering what’s to come

Students gather inside Summit Outpost (“nummit”) to study and socialize. Photo courtesy Judson Womack ’18

Joe DeMartin ‘21 (he/him), Senior Political Correspondent, and Sebastian Sola-Sole ‘21 (he/him), Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The remnants of the afternoon’s rain lingered on the stairs leading up to Summit Outpost before Thursday night’s all-staff meeting. A dozen and a half employees and company executives — all Davidson students or alumni — gathered on the building’s south side stage and waited with bated breath. Summit Coffee Chief Executive Officer Brian Helfrich ‘07 broke the news that would later appear on the establishment’s Instagram page: “It’s time to say goodbye.”

After eight years operating on Davidson’s campus, Summit Coffee Co. and Davidson mutually agreed to return ownership of Summit Outpost — a site also known to the community as “Nummit” — to the college. The news broke late Thursday evening in an official press release on the Dining Services section of the College’s official website followed by a post on the Summit Outpost’s social media. 

The press release explains “Davidson Dining Services will assume management of the retail location and is considering modifying and expanding the current food menu.”

Shortly after the College announced the decision, the Dining Services section of Davidson’s website was inaccessible to regular users. Head of Communications Mark Johnson explained in an email that the event was the result of technical issues. 

According to Helfrich, the two parties recently came to a mutual agreement to end their lease, originally set to expire in 2023. Helfrich noted, “There has always been a clause in the contract that the college could, at any point, pay a lump sum and [end the lease early]…We’ve known for two-and-a-half, three years that this option may be on the table.” 

Helfrich stressed that he did not feel forced or strong-armed by the college into leaving campus, saying, “I was definitely a mutual participant in these conversations.” Once the college exercised its right to pull out of the deal, negotiations turned toward securing a lasting relationship between the two parties and preserving the space’s identity. 

Both Summit executives and Davidson administrators expressed a desire for continuity in dining experience and service quality across the different iterations of the space. The College’s official statement to The Davidsonian noted, ”Our plan is for the Outpost to continue operating in the same building, with the same décor, the same coffee and the same baristas.” 

On the topic of student employment, Director of Auxiliary Services Richard Terry mentioned his “hope is that the current employees would continue to work there.” Helfirch echoed the sentiment, adding that the company “will not train baristas as if they are employees of Summit Coffee, but will embrace this as if they are serving Summit because it’s in our best interest to make sure they’re serving our coffee as well as possible,” also saying “We have all the intent to stay engaged.” 

Summit Outpost Assistant Manager Maddy Wolfenbarger ‘22 noted her disappointment with the change and how it affects her career interests, saying,“I want to work for Summit… To work for Dining Services, where there isn’t a lot of job mobility, I don’t feel like there is a lot of opportunity as a student looking at food service and coffee service as a future.”

Beyond the career question, the college has yet to determine whether the establishment will continue to serve alcohol in the future. According to Helfrich, the deal that brought Summit to campus in the first place revolved, partially, around beer and wine service: “It was a partnership led by the [Dean of Students Office]. Students had gone to the college and said that they wanted a pub coffeehouse on campus.” 

That narrative has since changed. While the college’s official statement noted, “There are no plans to serve alcohol at the present time,” Terry expressed that no decision has been made at this time, saying “we’re still not certain that would continue to be part of the Outpost going forward, but it’s an open question,” citing lackluster pre-pandemic alcohol sales as the reason for the decision.  

As the college continues to envision what the space will look like under new management, Terry and Johnson both requested that anyone with questions, concerns, and ideas reach out to Auxiliary or Dining Services. 

Despite promises of continuity, many anticipate an atmospheric change. Summit Outpost Manager Sarah Woods ‘21 spoke to the importance of student autonomy in the space and the danger a dining services takeover could pose: “What’ll be lost is the independence that students feel there, especially because this semester it’s student run.” Woods continued, “I think the feeling of it will change.”

Many students, alumni, and faculty took to social media to air their opinion on the matter. Summit Coffee Outpost’s Thursday evening post read, in part, “Davidson College is assuming ownership of this space once again,” sparking confusion, frustration, and an outpouring of emotion among student social media users. Several users tagged the college requesting an explanation.  

The following morning, just before 8:30 a.m., Davidson College President Carol Quillen addressed student reactions in an email to the faculty distribution list. Quillen stressed that she was “not the point person” for these discussions, but nonetheless emphasized “that the college did not forced [sic] Summit out.” 

About 90 minutes later, President Quillen posted a cryptic message to her Twitter account that read, “Gentle reminder that controlling the narrative is not always the same thing as telling the truth.” Summit Coffee’s Twitter account quickly responded, “If this is in reference to Summit, we said zero things that aren’t the truth.”

Just over an hour later, the College began responding from its Twitter account to students who had criticized the decision the night before: “Summit chose to end its lease early. This was not our decision. However, this new management structure will allow us to continue to exclusively serve its coffee and stay open longer.” Contending Summit unilaterally decided to leave campus, these responses directly contradicted the language in the College’s press release that stressed the mutual nature of the decision.  

Summit responded to defend themselves again, saying, “This is categorically false. As we have stressed, it was an agreement. If we chose to leave, there would not have been a buyout contract. There is a buyout. It was an agreement. We Agreed. Mutual. ‘We did not choose this decision’ is wrong.”

Speaking to the social media controversy on the whole, Terry admitted “I guess I didn’t anticipate folks would be as anxious or upset about it [as they were],” also remarking that there are a number of “intangible” value markers, beyond the food and the furniture, whose importance he failed to understand. 

While the spotlight lingered on the dispute between Summit and Davidson, many took to social media to reflect on those intangibles and remember Summit Outpost for the joy and pleasure it brought the community. Professor of Biology Dr. Dave Wessner explained, “For most of my time here, the College has lacked comfortable, informal gathering places. The Outpost has filled that void…Students, especially students who typically were nervous about visiting a facility member in his/her office, often commented on the accessibility of meeting there.” 

Former barista Katie Walsh ‘20 echoed Wessner’s sentiments, summing up the Outpost’s importance in an Instagram post, commenting, “My college experience would not have been as meaningful or authentic if I hadn’t worked here or been welcomed in by the Summit staff. Thank you Summit for all you have done to serve this community. You were the place we went to on a rainy day when things were tough and I’ll forever be thankful for that.” 

Ultimately, the announcement of Summit Outpost’s departure brought back pangs of those all too familiar feelings of uncertainty and sadness that rocked the Davidson community when the College announced its closure last March. Following that now-infamous campus-wide  email, many students instinctually flocked to their beloved cafe in search of the comfort they so desperately craved in that moment of sheer distress. And in that moment of sheer distress, Nummit did what Davidson does in its best moments: it brought the community together for one final glimpse of normalcy before Davidson dissolved around them.