Emerson foodcart a giant flop

by Beacon Staff • April 2, 2008

Only an extremely meticulous guide to Boston eateries would include the Emerson Cafe's summer timeshare on Boston Common. The little foodcart, and its attendant chairs and tables, is as unremarkable as it is unappetizing.

It's been a nonentity in the city for 11 summers.,Only an extremely meticulous guide to Boston eateries would include the Emerson Cafe's summer timeshare on Boston Common. The little foodcart, and its attendant chairs and tables, is as unremarkable as it is unappetizing.

It's been a nonentity in the city for 11 summers. It's open for less than five months each year, and only in September does its season overlap with a semester. The slim pickings on its truncated menu are made redundant by the real Emerson Cafe on Boylston Street.

This isn't Chotchkie's either, where customers come "for the atmosphere and the service." Instead of atmosphere, there's exhaust emanating from the two headhouses of the Boylston T station and the noisy intersection at Boylston and Tremont streets. The food is standard Aramark fare.

But if there were such a thorough guide to seasonal student eateries, the "Price" rating for the outdoor Emerson Cafe annex would require a string of dollar signs overrunning the page.

It's not the overpriced food that offends. The little EmCaf foodcart has lost, on average, between $30,000 and $35,000 every year since it opened in 1996, said Margaret Ings, Emerson's associate vice president of governmental and community relations.

Emerson students have been picking up the tab. The outdoor cafe is part of Emerson's annual budget, David Rosen, vice president of public affairs, said, so it's funded each year by our tuition dollars.

For more than a decade, Emerson has tolerated losses of more than $7,000 for each month the EmCaf annex was open. The grand total is now somewhere between $360,000 and $420,000. The college has an agreement with the city to run the cafe for another three years, which will push the final tally toward $500,000.

Incredibly, Ings says Emerson is eager to extend its commitment beyond that. This year the cafe is upgrading its foodcart and reconfiguring the menu, but this seems like giving a terminally-ill patient a facelift. A boom in sales and profit is unlikely.

Emerson students, especially our representatives in the Student Government Association, should urge the administration to retire this wasteful legacy. A boycott isn't really an option.

Those $35,000 per year could be better spent in any number of ways: boosting financial aid, making long overdue improvements to the library or offering tenure to a deserving professor.

Nobody will miss the food. So, why would the administration want to prolong this failed venture into the streetside bistro business?

The outdoor cafe is an idea whose time has passed, an artifact of an era when this part of downtown Boston was known as the "Combat Zone." Adult entertainment thrived and attracted crime and drug-dealing. The ulterior motive behind opening the cafe was to deter this seedier element, to keep it from gaining a foothold in the summertime and to thereby earn the good graces of the city and our new downtown neighbors.

It was crime-fighting through panini. And-as part of the larger plan to gentrify our neck of the woods-it worked. Emerson's Boylston Street generation has reaped the benefits of that gamble.

The "Combat Zone" has cleaned up considerably, though not totally, and Emerson is a rare Boston college whose neighbors don't riot when it plans new construction. The favor of a powerful mayor like Thomas Menino is very valuable, and it helped expedite preparations for the Paramount Center on Washington Street.

Now, though, the cafe has rendered itself obsolete. There are still criminals hanging around the Boylston T Station, but there always will be. They mostly come out at night, anyway, when the cafe has long been locked-up. Ings, who's due a lot of the credit for improving Emerson's relationship with our neighbors, admits the cafe is there as much to prevent police-horses from leaving piles of manure on the sidewalk as it is to prevent vagrancy.

That battle won, it's time to put the peace dividend to better use.