The Starting Line: A Place to Gather

When I visit Caltech and see the Red Door Café, I am proud 
to remember helping to get it started. Costas Synolakis (BS ’78, MS ’79, PhD ’86) suggested the idea of creating a grad-student coffeehouse in the first place. The late L. Bruce Kahl, MD, then the head of Counseling Services, agreed that grad students needed a place to meet. Astrid Howard (MS ’83) came up with the great name. Morgan Gopnik (MS ’82) did more of the work than anyone else, including painting the door red. As for me, my role was 
to get the project off the ground: once we had a committee together, I got the permission and the money to get the coffeehouse started. I also remember buying the first, home-level espresso machine—and then its replacement restaurant-grade model.

It all started on the second floor
 of Winnett, which had a few student offices, the Caltech Y, and two meeting rooms. We somehow negotiated to get an office next to a meeting room, and 
a split door was put in between the two, along with a service counter. I still remember vividly when Astrid suggested that we paint the door red. That was not too well received, but then she added if we did that we could call it the Red Door Café. Everyone liked that, and the name was set.

In the beginning, you could get coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, as well as homemade desserts. We had some paid staffing, but most counter duty was handled by volunteers.

The Red Door was a place that grad students hung out at; it was sometimes visited by undergrads but not very much by faculty. Before it got started, grad students only tended to know the other students in their department. This was one small way that grad students could meet outside of their direct professional activities, and I think it was helpful in making Caltech a more human place for us.

—Brian Toby, PhD ’87

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Photo: Jenny K. Somerville