University of Waterloo Bombshelter Pub to close after 40 years

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Kurt MacMillan Feds VP Operations and Finance.

Katarina Wex, a postgraduate student in Applied Language Studies and a Bombshelter Pub (Bomber) employee of four years, has just lost her job. To her, and many other former employees, it’s similar to losing a home.

“Bomber’s really like a tight-knit community, so you make really good friends there and you feel bad when you have to leave because it’s just like, not only is it a workplace, but it’s also like a home for a lot of people,” Wex said.

Kurt MacMillan, VP of Operations and Finance for the Federation of Students (Feds) announced on Dec 17 that the iconic Bombshelter Pub will close its doors in the new year. The Bomber, as it is affectionately known, has been operating on a loss for many years.

“The Bombshelter Pub over the last five years has lost over a million dollars,” MacMillan said. “As a board, we were fiscally responsible for the Federation of Students financial status and monies so with the losses at Bomber over the last few years we realized that this would be the best way to approach it.”

Wex expressed shock at the “knee-jerk” reaction of MacMillan and the Board, and felt that efforts to save the pub were lacking.

“It’s no secret that Bomber has been struggling the past five years. There has been kind of like an investigation of Bomber’s finances […] Bomber’s revenue was falling,” she said. “I feel like not enough was done to try and save it. I feel like this “closure” is going from 0 to 100 real quick and is a knee-jerk reaction.”

Consultations for what should be done with the space formerly occupied by the  Bomber will happen in Winter 2019. MacMillan stated that the decision to close it was based on “internal and external consultations,” but it is unclear who was consulted.

“We got a presentation in Council from the Board of Directors basically asking for some feedback for the Bomber. It wasn’t specific, it didn’t actually tell us what was going to happen, it was just basically asking for our input without any clear understanding where that input was going to go. I can tell you from my own experience that I had no understanding that the Bomber was going to close,” Joshua Mbandi, Arts Councillor, said.

Students at large were not consulted, and were only given opportunities to provide feedback via Reddit posts over the Fall semester.

Feds gave Bomber staff less than two hours’ notice before an emergency meeting where employment was terminated for all employees. Those who were unable to make it were essentially fired through email.

“The close date is effective as of today due to this organization prioritizing the needs of getting this process started as quickly as possible. This decision also impacts each of you, and regretfully we are providing notice to all staff that their employment is ending today,” the email stated.

“Not even the student managers knew — they went in [Monday] just the same as us […] and they were told the news and some of them just broke down crying as soon as they heard because it’s such an emotional thing because it’s like your home is being taken away,” Wex said.

The announcement brought shock for all, but Councillors and staff also expressed anger. Mbandi expressed anger at the lack of involvement of councillors – and, by extension, students – in the decision making process.

“I was pissed off, to be frank with you, because I felt like there as a lack of clarity around the decision,” Mbandi said. “I was angry on the one hand because we had heard nothing, it was released as a press release, councilors had no real updates beforehand, all of the Feds staff were fired, just let go like that, and there was no real transparency around the process, it was just basically a decision made by the VPOF, I was angry that none of us had had the access to information that we wanted.”

Many students and Councillors expressed disdain for how Feds handled the situation. The unethical firing of Bomber staff, in particular, sparked outrage in students.

In an email sent to fellow councillors, Austin Richard, Science Society representative in Student Council, pronounced Feds’ actions and decisions regarding the closure of Bomber and termination of staff employment as “disgraceful”.

“It would appear that the VPOF has demonstrated negligence in management responsibilities with respect to the Bomber’s valued and trusted employees,” he said. “How could we treat our employees this way? Many of whom are our own students, constituents who expect to be represented by us and told about plans that might affect them. How many others were told only hours ago that they’d be losing their jobs?”

Mbandi admitted that councillors were not included in the decision-making process.

“I have got the feeling that Councillorsfeel like they weren’t included in the process as well as they could have [been], and it’s kind of disappointing to see the way that this whole thing was handled, because people lost their jobs, students lost a space which they’ve been going to for a long time,” Mbandi said.

Similar to the Bomber staff, the Student Council was also in the dark about the decision until the Feds announcement on Monday. Richard shed light on the lack of involvement of the Council in decision-making processes.

“The most recent input Council had was about two months ago when the Chair of the Board brought to Council several strategies being explored by the Board for the opinion and comment of Councillors, but we were not afforded the opportunity to make a decision as the representatives of the students,” Richard said.

Mbandi also highlighted the lack of transparency in Feds as a major issue. Mbandi stated that councillors do not have access to the same information that the Board does, and that interferes with their efforts to represent students.

“Since councilors are not actually able to see the whole financial details for the commercial services, some of this information is restricted to the BoardoD, and as a result, due to the lack of transparency, we are not allowed to actually see some of the finer details,” Mbandi said.

The future of the Bomber is uncertain. While there are unclear plans for renovation, MacMillan intends to keep the space as a food-and-beverage oriented business.

“We’ve been doing research to try and figure out what would be best for the student. of course since we are a student union, we want to hear the students’ feedback and consult with them on the new opportunities for there. Ideally it would still be a food and beverage program and continue to have the social gathering, and the strong community as Bomber had in the past,” he said.

Mbandi thinks the entire situation has been mismanaged.

“It’s all so absurd. The whole thing has been fumbled like nothing i’ve seen before. Student politics can be a bit harsh but there’s some good governance basics that people need to adhere to and it doesn’t seem like any of that was adhered to in this decision. I’m really disappointed by the whole situation from start to finish,” Mbandi said.

Mbandi believes rebranding is the way to go, but emphasizes that the Bomber, or any campus pub/restaurant that will replace it, is a service to students. Campus restaurants are not meant to be for-profit, they are primarily services run by students for students.

“One thing that we have to understand is that Bomber does not compete with [other pubs], Bomber is a student pub,” Mbandi said. “Its job isn’t to compete with all these other pubs in the region, its job is to cater to students on campus at the UW, and as a result, it should focus on being the best service to students.”

“I hope when the new space is revitalized, one of the things that they remember is that our job is to cater to students,” Mbandi said.

In an email to Councillors, Seneca Velling, Chair of the Board of Board attempted to answer some of the Councillors’ questions. He stated that, upon consultation with an outside source, which prompted further discussion on the financial health of the Bomber, the Board and MacMillan decided that the best course of action was to close it.

In addition, Velling outlined the plans for the space in the future.

“The renovation process is estimated to take a year to a year and a half. This allows for additional student consultation regarding what they wish to see from a restaurant in their campus space, and time for necessary renovations and changes to be made to best improve the student experience for the long term,” he said.

The email provided, according to Mbandi, “no clarity on what the direction is [for the future].”

The loss of the Bomber will be felt by students in the coming months. Even with the decreasing revenue, it was an iconic and important part of the UW campus community.

Bomber is an institution, we’ve been around for forty years, [it] was its own distinct environment. There was nothing really similar in the area that offers the same quality of staff, quality of food, quality of drinks,” Wex said.