An Ode to Novack: Dartmouth's Cultural Icon

by Eliza Jane Schaeffer | 7/13/18 2:25am

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Novack Cafe has a variety of eating options for students who need to grab something between classes or on the go.

by Paula Kutschera / The Dartmouth Staff

 Before I decided to go to Dartmouth, a friend of a friend showed me around. I don’t remember anything from her tour, save the fact that we skipped past Novack Café. “This is grim,” she said dismissively. As we moved on, I surreptitiously strained my neck in an attempt to catch a glimpse of this place that was “grim.” I was intrigued.

It’s hard to describe Novack to someone who has never experienced it.

When asked to complete this daunting task, Russell Stewart ’20 responded, “Just a cheap café to grab a sandwich if you’re really in a rush.”

It is, and it isn’t. For one, nothing sold by Dartmouth Dining Services meets the standards prescribed by the adjective “cheap.” But more importantly, the spirit of Novack transcends the confines of the library basement where it is situated. It is not just a place to buy food: it is a cultural icon.

Eating at Novack is analogous to inhaling fast food takeout while still in the restaurant parking lot, to picking at lukewarm leftovers from last night’s dinner while seated at your work desk or to shoving down a granola bar with one hand on the steering wheel. It is the butt of jokes in the Facebook group “Dartmouth Memes for Cold AF Teens.” During finals week, hungry students look at each other and, resigned, sigh, “Novack?” Its name is an acceptable synonym for “grim,” “sad” or “desperate.” In short, it is widely despised, at maximum volume and with much pride.

I understand the rationality of this conviction. The overwhelming greyness of the interior, the harsh lighting and the inescapable memories of late nights and early mornings don’t flatter Novack’s image. And it is difficult to forget the time that I bit into my Novack sandwich and found a fly. Nonetheless, I find Novack beautiful in its deplorability. To me, it represents everything Dartmouth should be.

First, it is diverse. There is coffee and energy drinks for the caffeine-deprived, fruit (albeit slightly battered) and vegetables for the healthy and a panacea of nostalgia-inducing study snacks for the young at heart. There’s nothing more poetic than reading about postsynaptic neurotransmitter-gated ion channels while eating your weight in crackers shaped like fish. Kombucha, seaweed crackers, Hot Pockets, Cheetos and chicken salad sandwiches combine to form a jarring kaleidoscope of foods served to a jarring kaleidoscope of people.

It is unpretentious and unassuming. Novack doesn’t pretend to be something it is not.

The same cannot be said for the hip-and-health-conscious-grandma’s-kitchen Collis Café, or the bakery-sans-oven King Arthur Flour Café, or the trying-to-be-ethnic, but should really stop Class of 1953 Commons. Novack is bare-bones: a single sales window, surrounded by wire-framed carts overflowing with snacks, facing an open work space. It is a dining facility that knows its place.

“We’re trying to feed people quickly between classes,” said Chris Robbins, manager of the residential snack bars and Novack Café. “And we’re also giving them another option for late night, or for studying.”

For Robbins, efficiency is key. He described to me a video in which one man cycles through the Novack line as many times as he can before his partner gets to the front of the KAF line during rush hour.

“He kept going through and going through and had a whole bunch of coffees lined up in the time the guy upstairs just went through once,” Robbins said, estimating that the Novack customer was ultimately able to reach the counter 17 times.

Perhaps Novack’s quick turnover explains why Stewart views it as “cheap” despite the fact that its sandwiches cost roughly as much as the sandwiches at KAF or Collis. Dartmouth students are busy, and for busy people, time is money. A coffee from KAF is a status symbol. It says, “I can succeed at Dartmouth and still have time to wait in line for 30 minutes.”

That being said, Alex Rounaghi ’20 appreciates the speed with which Novack workers can deliver his lunch, which usually consists of a tuna sandwich, salt and vinegar chips and a coffee. He values Novack for its reliability, both in service and in quality. In a word, he would describe Novack as “underrated.”

“There’s a negative stigma that [Novack is] just for people who are in a hurry and are just trying to get some food, but I think that they have great meals,” he said.

Particularly when compared with other DDS offerings, Novack is far from horrible. It serves bagels from local bakery Goose and Willie’s, as do Pine Restaurant at the Hanover Inn and Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery. It sells coffee from Pierce Bro’s, as does Collis. And the sandwiches, while perhaps not worthy of a five-star rating, are functional and not overtly offensive.

According to Rounaghi, adding to the charm of his usual Novack order is the fact that it was put together by his fellow students. Eating carrots bagged by your friend’s roommate is “more personal,” he said, than eating carrots that may as well have arrived in the Novack refrigerator fully formed.

Novack, along with the residential snack bars, is the only DDS facility which is run almost entirely by students. Students organize shifts, train fellow employees, take orders and identify areas for improvement. At an institution where it is easy to feel either coddled or forgotten, this display of support and trust is refreshing.

To conclude my ode to Novack, I encourage students to imagine a world without it. A world in which the 10:00 pm bag of chips they so desperately need in order to focus is withheld from them by a snaking line of their fellow classmates or by a trek across the frigid Green. A world in which they are forced to sacrifice reliability for branding. A world in which students depend on the College entirely, and the College depends on students not at all.

Thank you, Novack.