Student Stories

The College by the Cup: Grounds of Being

For decades, UChicago's student-run coffee shops have given community members space to congregate (and caffeinate) on their own terms. The cafés started small—Ex Libris began as a pair of vending machines when the Regenstein Library first opened in the early 1970s—but over the years, their role on campus has become paramount. In this series, we explore the unique atmospheres of UChicago's five student-run coffee shops: Ex Libris, Cobb Café, Hallowed Grounds, Harper Café, and Grounds of Being. Previously: Harper Café.

Name: Grounds of Being       

Location: Swift Hall, basement

Manager: Greg Chatterley, 4th-year PhD student in the History of Christianity at the Divinity School

Go for: diverse clientele and quality coffee

Atmosphere: friendly but professional

Staff favorites: the “Mug Club”

Soundtrack: depends on staff, “not a whole lot of gospel”

Nestled within the basement of the Divinity School is Grounds of Being, a coffee shop that attracts a holy trinity of UChicagoans: undergrads, graduate students, and medical staff.

With a diverse array of offerings, Grounds of Being is stocked with coffee drinks, hot foods from local restaurants, and a selection of high-quality, natural sodas. Customer favorites include the iced coffee, which the café slow brews, and the sweet-nature sage latte, off the specialty menu.

It’s “Where God drinks coffee,” and aptly enough, the mugs that advertise that slogan serve as the shop’s merchandise mainstay. “The mugs started as a way to reduce paper usage,” said Greg Chatterley, the café’s manager. “It’s another way we try to approach our responsibility to our community and the larger world community.” Grounds of Being carries almost all organic or natural products, recyclable materials, and no plastics, according to Chatterley. Their utensils and cold to-go cups are made from plant starches instead of crude oil, and are fully compostable.

The shop offers a fun perk to recurrent customers: membership in the “Mug Club,” a collection of approximately 80 mugs that hang on the rafters above the cash registers. Anyone can rent a spot in the “Mug Club” for a year—it will cost you $5—but Chatterley said the membership fee should pay for itself. “You get a dollar back a month, either on a coffee drink or a free refill, so hopefully over the long run people can benefit,” he said.

The shop’s distinct artwork and decorations are entirely the work of former students and employees. “Over the last few years we’ve improved some stuff and done some painting—as well as kept it clean, which goes a long way,” said Chatterley.

According to legend, two students started an unofficial coffee shop in 1962 by selling home-brewed coffee for five cents a cup. After their first few years of sales, the students had saved up enough money to invest in a location. They established the first coffee shop on the main floor of the Divinity School; the current version of Grounds of Being was constructed in the early 1980s.

Grounds of Being sponsors Battle of the Gods, a tournament decided solely by customer tips. Staff members decide the theme of the tournament quarterly and create the bracket, giving each seeded pairing a week to compete. Popular past brackets have featured UChicago departments and famous UChicago alumni.

Additionally, the shop is entirely not-for-profit, and surplus funds that Grounds of Being generates are donated to the Divinity Students Association. This year the shop donated $40,000 to help support professional development grants and emergency care funds for Divinity School students.  

Despite the location, Chatterley said that the shop does not play much religious music. “We give pretty lenient sway to staff to play whatever music they want, so you might hear R&B and hip hop, the next day you might hear the latest indie band,” he said. “Every once in a while you might hear some Gregorian chants.”