On any given day, you can sit at a table near the Sprague Library and watch a steady trickle of people approach the doors of Cafe Diem. Almost every one of them goes through the same progression of actions.
They reach for the door handle and pull, only to find it locked. They stare into the darkened interior, squinting as if looking for signs of life and activity. Finally, they flap their hands in exasperation or shrug helplessly before turning their back on the building that used to be the home of Au Bon Pain.
Offering an affordable variety of sandwiches, pastries, soups and salads, along with select snacks and beverages, Au Bon Pain was a popular destination at any time of day. Additionally, its many comfortable chairs and tables provided a pleasant environment for working and socializing.
As the first semester dragged on and the weather turned cold, it was common to find students curled up with their laptops and some comfort food, chatting happily with friends in the warmth of the cafe. Though Au Bon Pain was always bustling and busy, the long lines moved quickly and food came out at a reasonable pace.
Now that same space is blocked off, inaccessible and as distant as the memories of life before quarantine and social distancing. At some point last year, while the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic transformed Montclair State University’s campus into a ghost town, Au Bon Pain quietly shuttered its doors for good.
Emphasis on “quietly,” since no announcement was made nor explanation given for the cafe’s closure. Even now, there is no sign posted anywhere on the building to clarify the absence of the beloved establishment for would-be customers. It’s no wonder so many people try the door every day, hoping to find Au Bon Pain open for business.
The question of Cafe Diem’s future prospects is on Montclair State’s mind, and Dr. Dawn Soufleris, vice president for Student Development and Campus Life, has answers.
“It was supposed to open the last week of September,” Soufleris said. “The issue right now is labor. We cannot find enough people to work in dining services.”
She is hoping to be able to reopen Cafe Diem by mid-October. This timeframe would allow for employees to be trained and other final preparations to be made to ensure a smooth opening process.
With Au Bon Pain gone, what kind of establishment will Cafe Diem become? Soufleris shared this vision with The Montclarion as well.
“We’re calling it Destination Dining, and that means it’s going to have some very specific things like halal food, gluten-free, kosher [and] vegan [dining options],” Soufleris said. “[All] that is going to be there along with coffees [and other things that you can go in there to get before going into the library] but it will also have hot food and prepared food to go, again with some specifics to meet the needs of the students that have asked for special dining.”
Soufleris elaborated on how this may change later in the school year.
“That’s for now. The hope is that it will evolve into something else, [which will be more like] potentially [having] swag being there with coffee and maybe some music and some other things, which would potentially be in the spring semester,” she said.
These plans certainly sound exciting and ambitious, but it still seems fairly tentative for now. If workers can be found in what has proven to be a challenging time for servers and the serving industry alike, then Cafe Diem’s potential can hopefully be put to good use soon.
Still, it begs the question of why Au Bon Pain needed to close. Some feel Panera Bread is an adequate replacement for Au Bon Pain, and for a time the idea of Panera being offered on campus was exciting to many. But long waits and unmasked workers have seen the novelty wear off quickly.
Au Bon Pain’s absence is keenly felt, and the empty building feels too much like a symbol of things lost to the calamity of the past year. It has never been more apparent that the uncertainty of the future is truly a collective anxiety, and we could all use some closure, even if it’s a mildly apologetic sign on Cafe Diem’s door.