Patrons blow off steam at Xando

Ah, Xando! It’s the place on campus to just hang out with your friends and relax as you wait for your cup o’ joe.

Or the place to see and be seen at night -- by everyone but the wait staff.

Or the place to grab a tasty sandwich, if they haven’t run out of food.

There’s no denying that the coffeehouse-bar has been a hit from Day One and has done just what Penn’s real estate honchos hoped it would when they lured the hip chain to campus. It’s also been a showcase for Xando, Inc., which has been approached by other schools seeking to put a little magic in their campus life since this first campus location opened last fall.

Trouble is, it seems the place is choking on its own success. So the Xando brass came down from corporate headquarters in Connecticut to meet with a handful of Penn students and faculty Sept. 9 to hear complaints and get ideas on how to make things flow more smoothly.

Tom Lussenhop, Penn’s managing director for institutional real estate, suggested the meeting after hearing comments from a member of the faculty.

To help speed up service, the store’s new general manager, Lisa Falls, said that 10 new employees have been hired and additional shifts created. And Stenzler added that the company’s food ordering and production procedures have been completely revamped.

Engineering graduate student Peter Trinh had several suggestions for the Xando brass, including pitcher service for coffee and beer and an express seating area. Stenzler thought the coffee pitchers might be a good idea, but nixed the beer pitchers -- “We don’t want to be a Smokey Joe’s,” he said -- and added that an express seating area wouldn’t mesh with the type of environment they want to create.

Which is the kind of place the corner tavern used to be: “a place to meet friends and catch up,” in the words of graduate student Greg Dubrow.

That Xando fills that role was demonstrated by the comments of one undergraduate who did not wish to be quoted by name. She liked the place the first time she visited and has come back repeatedly with friends, but problems with slow service and flubbed orders on her later visits have made her wary about coming back again.

Stenzler acknowledged that it was people like her who illustrate both what the company’s doing right and what it’s not. “We know the reason people put up with [this] is because nobody else does what we do. But that’s living on borrowed time,” he said.

Some of the problems may stem from Xando’s trying to combine several different functions in a single space. And some of them may stem from the unusual layout of that space: Most of the chain’s outlets have larger bar counters and are all on one floor.

But ultimately, everyone agreed that the solutions lie with the people who work there. As that student put it, “Maybe you need a more perceptive wait staff.”

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Originally published on September 30, 1999