Former cafe worker reflects on cafes and connection: ‘It wasn’t just a job’

OSWEGO, N.Y. – In the five months they’ve spent apart, Cathi West has missed the Lake Effect Cafe and its patrons just as much as they’ve missed her.

Seated at a hightop in the back corner where she used to take her breaks during shifts, West observed the surrounding activity. Students ordered drinks teeming with caffeine, chatted with friends and studied at neighboring tables. It was her first visit back since retiring in May. 

“It feels like home!” said West, with her signature cheery laugh.

West’s energetic, welcoming personality defined her work at the cafe over the past five years, and the entire duration of her 31.5 year career at SUNY Oswego’s Auxiliary Services. Prior to working at Lake Effect Cafe — which offers food items and Starbucks beverages — West worked at nearly every college food service building.

A lifelong resident of Oswego, West began her career after high school. Her aunt worked at Auxiliary Services and said it was “a great place to work.” Now, decades later, West agrees.

It’s hard not to feel instantly comfortable talking to West, which is likely why students have gravitated to her over the years.

“A lot of students actually would talk to me,” she said. “I would be sitting here having my break and there’s a couple students that would come over…and they’d tell me stuff that was wrong in their life.”

“I always thought that was nice, that they trusted me to talk to me. It wasn’t just a job. I loved this part of it. I always wanted students to feel comfortable coming in.”

Students offered lots of information about themselves while ordering, and West paid attention. 

“I would learn a lot from people, and then every day, I learn a little more. And if they said they were sick, I’d come in the next time I’d see them, and I’d be like, ‘Are you feeling better?’”

West’s consideration and sharp memory didn’t go unnoticed. When Hannah Limbo, a junior at SUNY Oswego, learned of West’s retirement, she said she felt “so sad because I just loved talking to her about our day-to-day lives.”

“I remember this one time when she acknowledged the fact that I always get all of my drinks with light ice,” said Limbo. “From that point on…she’d always remember to write light ice on my cups. After weeks of ordering at the cafe, she told me she started to order her coffee drinks with light ice.”

Restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 — masks, social distancing, capacity limits and more — made it more difficult for West to interact with cafe patrons. Students were noticeably more withdrawn and gloomy during the pandemic than in previous years, she said. 

Luckily, West is a self-described “homebody” and pandemic restrictions added minimal stress to her life. This helped West to continue connecting with students during a time when small moments of kindness meant the most. 

“I never came and showed any stress to anybody…I don’t know if that’s why people always talked to me. I become very attached to the students I work with,” she said. It sounded like they become attached to her, too. 

There’s Sarah, who graduated a few years ago and worked with West on campus. She texted West the morning of our interview to say she was eating pumpkin bread “‘cause her and I loved that,” said West. 

There’s Ashley, another graduate West calls “a great friend” who once left the Bridge Street Run to spend time with West and her husband. 

Then there were the “regulars” like James, a student whose order — a cold brew and a chocolate muffin, she said — West had ready on the counter every morning before he came in. Multiple students excitedly approached her during our interview to say hello. She’s collected cafe comment cards from students who specifically thanked her. She’s attended numerous student weddings.

“I have so many great friends from here,” said West.

Retirement has kept West busy spending time with her newly-retired husband, Paul, and their Great Pyrenees, Oliver. She called retirement with her husband “wonderful.”

West wasn’t sure if she’d return to work at the cafe after leaving in May for summer break. She decided to retire in August upon receiving her return-to-work letter. 

“When I called my boss to tell him, I actually cried. I couldn’t even get my name out. It was hard for me to decide to do it, because of how much I love working with students.”

About five minutes into our interview, West pointed at my iced drink on the table. Remembering my order from last year, she said, “Chai, right? You know what’s good, is pumpkin chai. Ooh —”  an idea visibly interrupted her thoughts as she gasped and stared at me, her blue eyes excitedly peeled open.

“You wanna get one? We’ll try it. I’ll go get us one. Do you mind hot?” 

West proceeded to jump out of her chair and order two hot pumpkin chai teas with almond milk. “Almond milk is what you like, right?” she asked me a few minutes later, steaming drinks in hand. 

Almond milk is my favorite, and of course — she remembered.