Three years after the pandemic began, discussions about the effects of COVID-19 have faded into the periphery. Still, the restrictive distancing protocols of times past have left tangible impacts on Stanford’s culture and student life.
In response, a team of undergraduate and coterminal students banded together to create On Call Café, a student-run late-night café that aims to build a sense of community through social gathering spaces. They hope to restore a sense of togetherness and ownership over campus by serving quality food late into the night.
Leo van den Daele ’24 and Matteo Perper ’23 first had the idea of reviving the “hello spirit” of Stanford last year. From their discussions with alumni, they noticed that campus had lost a sense of camaraderie and community over the last several decades — a trend worsened by the pandemic in 2020.
“The length of COVID was just long enough to end the traditions. There wasn’t the generational transfer that would always happen between the seniors and the frosh,” van den Daele said. “We’re back to a blank canvas, and now the question is, ‘What are we going to draw?’”
Van den Daele and Perper first tested the waters for On Call in a smaller, one-night pop-up cafe in the Tresidder package center. According to van den Daele, that first event attracted around 200 students and served as a fun night, but was not yet set to become a longer-form project.
That changed when the pair met current director of On Call Peyton Klein ’25 at Dinner with Strangers, a project of her own that similarly sought to foster a similar sense of community.
“After my frosh year, I realized how fragmented campus can be. There’s co-op life, there’s Greek life, there are clubs […] but there isn’t really a gathering or third space where people come together,” Klein said.
Van den Daele, Perper and Klein hit it off at that event, bonding over a common desire to create those settings outside of home and work — a campus “third space” focused on interaction and community.
The late-night café idea stuck with Klein, who spearheaded the On Call initiative over the summer and communicated with University administration in order to make it a reality.
After months spent searching for locations and funding, the team secured the Haas Center for two nights: Nov. 7 and 8. That gave them a two-week timeline to get every detail into place.
A campus-wide call for helping hands brought together a team of over 30 students to a fireside information session. Core team member Delali Bruce ’26 said, at that point, she was skeptical that they could organize everything within the two coming weeks.
“Rapid prototyping and proof of concept — that’s what this was built on, and that’s what student-run is. [It’s] the feeling of ‘do it now,’” she said. “If students didn’t really want this, this wouldn’t have happened in two weeks.”
As Klein explained, the team’s work centered around a value-forward approach to all aspects of the café. Each element was “something that people cared about, and On Call was just a platform for that creativity to manifest,” she said. According to her, such a platform is much needed on campus.
As Bruce and Maclaira Camper ’26 worked to develop a menu of toasts, Camper recalled keeping in mind the questions of “What is cozy to people? What do people enjoy?” In the end, they centered the menu around the idea of elevated childhood favorites.
Camper explained how the team took the relatively simple grilled cheese sandwich concept and altered it: “You have a regular grilled cheese, but you’re throwing in apples and caramelized onions for a little sweet taste to contrast the cheese’s flavor.”
Branding and design was also student-driven, with Lucy Duckworth ’25 taking the charge on developing a logo and color palette for the program. The logo, a loose articulation of a pennant rendered in muted versions of Stanford colors, was intended to be “both collegiate and a nod to the grassroots element of On Call,” Duckworth said.
A similar attention to detail went toward each aspect of the night, from the original postcards to the branded cup sleeves. Student artwork adorned the walls, spotlighting the community’s own talents in painting, digital design and photography. Laura Futamura ’24, who coordinated and curated the student art displayed during the pop-up, said she hopes to create room for student art of all different forms in the future.
The pop-ups themselves were staffed completely by students. They put together and took down the entire operation on both nights and independently took orders, cooked and served guests. Some moments required resourcefulness to pull through: the team of baristas found a last-minute coffee restock and notified patrons by ringing a cowbell. A panini press-operating group of students moved outside in order to keep the presses from overheating.
The result seemingly impressed student and administrative guests alike. The team now has commitments from the University for both space and funding, and they are currently finalizing where that space will be and what the future of On Call will look like. Perper is satisfied that On Call and administration are now “working together to find the best option — instead of whether or not there will be an option.”
Klein, who saw President Saller in attendance on the second night, said she’s “happy that administrators could come and see what students are capable of.”
Moving forward, the main challenge will be making On Call sustainable, not just in its financial viability, but also in its ability to maintain the values that it has spotlighted thus far. Bruce wants the café to keep its “late-night intention” and for students to continue to feel ownership over the space.
“Right now we have that grassroots spirit,” Bruce said. “Walking into a permanent space, I would really like it to feel non-corporate, student-run and gritty — in a good way.”
According to van den Daele, the team hopes that this café is only the beginning of a larger movement toward restoring Stanford’s lost sense of community and tradition.
“I think we’re really hoping that this is just one part of the picture,” van den Daele said. “We really hope that this will be the spark that sets off the student fire again.”