Paul Wegner percolates with pride when he talks about Cougar Grounds, the University of Houston’s student-run coffeehouse at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership, which now occupies a much bigger footprint at the college. Two years ago, the pandemic put Cougar Grounds on shaky ground as customer numbers plummeted. But Wegner, one of the store’s student supervisors, says business is better than ever.
“During the pandemic, there were days where I could count on one hand the number of customers we had,” said Wegner, a senior from Corpus Christi. “But we’re now exceeding pre-pandemic levels when we saw 100-200 people an hour.”
Cougar Grounds opened for business in 2008 and quickly became a campus hot spot. A second location opened in the Health 2 building in 2018. The gourmet coffees, deluxe teas and smoothies served up by “Cougar-istas” have become so popular that Cougar Grounds outgrew its original home inside Hilton College. It now occupies a premium spot that’s nearly twice as big next to the new Eric’s Club Center for Student Success. The much-anticipated move couldn’t have come at a better time, according to general manager Sean Lawless.
“The first few years of growth was around 20%,” said Lawless, who’s been doing the 12-hour daily grind from the beginning. “The pandemic years were down, but this semester has started about 70% over this time last year.”
In fact, much of Cougar Grounds’ success can be attributed to Lawless’ global vision for the business in both product and innovation. He is always looking for hot, new menu items and cutting-edge technology to showcase (the current espresso blend and brewing equipment comes straight from Italy), and the industry is taking notice.
“We’ve created a space that is visually impressive, operationally impressive and product-wise impressive as well,” said Lawless. “We have people from all over the world coming here to see what we’re doing because no one else is doing it.”
Cougar Grounds is the first university coffeehouse in the country run by students as part of a corollary education class. One of its biggest perks is that it serves as an entrepreneurial laboratory where students learn about small-business operations, marketing and sales, payroll, supply management and new product development.
“This is our fourth year of a new, comprehensive undergraduate curriculum that includes courses in cost controls, beverage management and entrepreneurship,” said Dennis Reynolds, dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership. “The new Cougar Grounds is so much more open and truly reflective of what we want our students to experience, both as customers and employees.”
Nearly 800 drinks are served by the student workers every day, from espressos and cappuccinos to lattes and mochas. And don’t forget about the delicious pastries and sandwiches to go along with that favorite beverage. Lawless said one of the biggest challenges is ensuring that each product meets the highest quality standards.
“It’s not an easy thing to do,” he said. “Our representative from Italy came in the other day and was amazed by our espresso extraction. He told me that ‘nobody does it this way’ because most people don’t put in the time and effort to do it really well.”
Cougar Grounds’ relocation is part of something bigger brewing at Hilton College, the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel (70% of hotel team members are students). In addition to the Cougar Grounds expansion, there is a $30 million expansion and renovation of the Hilton University of Houston. Highlighted by a new, glistening five-story, 70-room tower, which is slated to open in February 2023, hotel occupancy will nearly double to 150 rooms, allowing the hotel to accommodate larger overnight parties for weddings, conferences, and University events.
“Integrating all of our operations, including Cougar Grounds and the new and soon-to-be refurbished Hilton towers, is key to maintaining our role as a global leader in hospitality management,” said Reynolds. “It’s an exciting time.”
Jasmine Fraire, a senior from Dallas who will graduate from Hilton College in December with both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees says with a caffeinated confidence that there is no better place for students to prepare for a successful career in hospitality. More than 92% of Hilton College students have jobs lined up upon graduation.
“At Cougar Grounds, we have a diverse group of co-workers, and we get to learn about and work with products from around the world,” said Fraire, also a student supervisor. “It’s a great opportunity at one of the top programs anywhere.”
Cougar Grounds extended fall semester hours:
Monday – Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Saturday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Cougar Grounds 2 (in Health 2 building):
Monday – Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Closed Saturday – Sunday