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The opening of Benny's Diner, which was set for mid-March, has been pushed back until next semester. Credit: Chase Sutton

Benny's Diner, Penn Student Agencies’ newest business, was ready for opening day in mid-March before the University shut down all operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 30 students had been hired and trained over the months leading up to the long-awaited reveal of Houston Hall's new campus diner — a business that had been in the making since fall 2019. 

Now, five months later, Benny’s Diner's opening date has been pushed back yet again due to continued safety concerns.

Out of PSA’s ten completely student-run businesses, only firstServices — a laundry, water, and dry cleaning delivery service — will be operating close to normalcy. The University decided to shut down both Williams Cafe and Benny's Diner for the upcoming semester in an effort to keep the community healthy. 

The other seven agencies — Penn Closet, Quaker Corner, Special Deliveries, Penn Student Design, Compass Marketing, PSA Bartending, and Penn Lens — plan to transition to online-only operations, PSA President and rising College senior Sophia Velasquez said. 

Since PSA is categorized under the Vice Provost for University Life, the decision of which agencies could operate in the upcoming semester fell under the University's jurisdiction. Student directors nevertheless respect Penn's commitment to keep the campus community safe amid the pandemic, Velasquez said.

“It definitely sucks — there’s no other word to describe it — but it is for the best because we would hate nothing more than to contribute to the spread of COVID-19 obviously,” Benny’s Diner Executive Director and rising Wharton sophomore Diego Noriega said.

Prior to the University’s June announcement that it will operate under a hybrid model this fall, PSA was expecting 148 student employees — 52 of whom are work-study students, to return to work this semester — PSA General Manager Claire Williams said. The agencies were also planning to hire new employees this year to fill vacant spots, Williams added. 

Credit: File Photo Williams Cafe will be closed this semester.

Now, PSA will likely be unable to guarantee payment for students on work-study because all of the employees' wages come from the agencies' profits.

Executive Director of Williams Cafe and rising College senior Tyira Bunche said she is encouraging the cafe’s 15 employees to find temporary employment elsewhere for the fall — while retaining plans to work at the cafe during the spring semester. 

“It's been a really rough roller coaster,” Bunche said.

In the meantime, Bunche said the leaders of Williams Cafe, often referred to as WilCaf, are brainstorming creative ways to engage customers despite being forced to shutter for the upcoming semester.

“What we’re trying to do is kind of bring the WilCaf experience in a different way remotely because one of the things WilCaf prides itself on is the customer relations and having that great fan base,” Bunche said.

But not every student-run agency is closing for the semester. 

Penn Student Design, which specializes in graphic design, illustration, and web development, and Compass Marketing, have not been impacted at all, whereas other agencies have shifted to e-commerce platforms with a focus on shipping and packaging, Velasquez said.

“Other agencies are kind of hanging in the balance of like, ‘what the heck is happening? I don’t know’,” Velasquez said. She cited Penn Lens, which specializes in videography and photography, as one of the agencies struggling to determine how they will operate in the fall. 

FirstServices, however, will still provide its usual services to all students whether they are living on or off campus this fall. In fact, the agency is actively looking to recruit more employees.

Student employees will be provided with gloves and masks by firstServices, the organization's Executive Director and rising College senior Ashley Anumba said.

All firstServices student employees will not be able to enter any of the College Houses, where customers usually leave their laundry bags for pick up right outside their doors. Instead, students living on campus will be asked to drop off and pick up their laundry in cubbies that will be set up in Williams Hall, located adjacent to Williams Cafe.

Anumba said her team has gone through months of planning and preparations for various scenarios of fall semester operations.

“Nobody had given us a pandemic playbook,” Anumba said. “We had plans A, B, C, D, E.”