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Sandbox: "Coffee and Culture"

The newly opened Sandbox.

All Georgetown students know the feeling of searching desperately for a late-night study spot. While coffee shops provide a favorable ambiance for getting work done, most in the Georgetown area close far too early for students who find themselves working into the latest hours of the night.

Sandbox is a new space designed specifically to remedy this problem, as well as promote the arts scene here in D.C. Now open in the newly renovated space that was once the ever-popular bar Chinese Disco (3251 Prospect St NW), Sandbox is a largely student-run cafe, pioneered by a group of Georgetown students: Priscilla Mbimadong (NHS ‘20), Maria Gaspar (SFS ‘20), Kevin Adonis Martinez (COL ‘20), and Robbie Frants (SFS ‘20). I recently sat down with Robbie to discuss Sandbox and its aims for the Georgetown community.

What exactly is Sandbox?

Sandbox is, at its core, a cafe and hangout spot. And that’s kind of funny, because you would think the last thing that Georgetown needs is another cafe; there’s Compass, Bluebottle, Boulangerie Cristophe, all these places already popping up. What makes Sandbox a little different is that it’s open later to cater to students’ needs, and there’s also an emphasis on cultural events. We don’t have an exact schedule set up yet, but every Friday and Saturday or so, we’ll have a reading there, or someone playing background music while you study, something like that. “Coffee and culture” is our motto.

So you’re a student here at Georgetown, and the rest of the team are students too. Could you talk a little about the team, how you came up with the idea to start Sandbox, and how you started the process?

I actually wasn’t there on the night of the conception of Sandbox; it was Priscilla [Mbimadong] who started this whole process, who is basically the leader of this project.

Priscilla and some friends, including our team member Maria Gaspar, were out late one night in Georgetown at Muncheez, getting their shawarma on. Meanwhile, the owner of the [Sandbox] space, Robert Elliott, who had rented it out to Chinese Disco previously, was trying to figure out what to do with this space. He was driving his golf cart around late at night, as Georgetown residents do with their golf carts. [Priscilla and her friends saw him and] were like, hey! Give us a ride!, and he was like, okay! They started talking, and he [explained], I have this space that’s empty, we’re not using it, what do you think we should do with it? And they [said], oh, well, a cafe would be awesome, we need more late-night spots in Georgetown.

That’s the hole that we are thinking of filling, because in terms of late-night options, what do you have? There’s Muncheez, and there was Hashi Sushi, but it closed. And &pizza, but I think the hours there are more limited on weekdays. But none of those are study spaces—it’s not like you could work there and be creative.

I just happened to hear about [Sandbox] from Priscilla when we were at Uncommon Grounds together, so I told her to please let me come to the next meeting. That sounds so awesome. Basically, we’ve been working on [Sandbox] since late June, and just working on putting a team together and changing the space to be more oriented toward people working there: putting in outlets, wifi, speakers for background music. It’s interesting to look at the space that was Chinese Disco and to superimpose all of the amazing—or horrible—drunk memories that you have there, and then see it now. It’s just so different.

How have you transformed the space from Chinese Disco into Sandbox?

One layout-related problem that we had to overcome was that Chinese Disco had this huge bar—if you’ve been there, you will know about the bar. We [figured], we can’t take out this bar. It’s iconic, and it’s going to be expensive. So we worked around it, and have left the bar that was Chi-Di, but made little indentations for the espresso machine, figured out where the line’s going to flow, where the cash register’s going to be. We put in a new back shelf where there’s going to be a panini press, soup heater, bagel toaster, and a smoothie maker. On the main floor, there used to be these huge chairs and booths for people to sit in. We just cleared out all of those, and put in some tables for right now. And then we repainted it. The floor’s glossy, the ceiling’s a sky blue, there are green panels on the wall, and, to honor the Sandbox name, there’s light brown on the bottom of the wall. One other really cool transformation is that we’re going to use the outdoor space. Hopefully in the colder months we’ll also put in heating lamps, but especially in the summer, we’ll have a garden out there with a now-working fountain. There will be chairs and tables for people to sit outside. We’ve really changed it a lot.

Where did the name Sandbox come from?

Sandbox was actually a name that I think a friend of mine and Priscilla’s, Victoria Shakespeare (SFS ‘19), came up with. We talked about names for a while, and we had some favorites, but then we [realized that] this space is meant for not only Georgetown residents, but almost primarily for students, what with the culture and creative space. So we put out a survey to the class pages, asking which name students liked the most, and we got somewhere over a hundred responses. Sandbox won, so we made it Sandbox.

Are you planning on hosting any specific events?

I guess the base would be the weekly cultural events, and those could range anywhere from music—we’re talking to some musicians from Howard right now, jazz musicians and singers—and then collaborating with the English department and having poetry readings and book readings. We want it to be dynamic. There are also going to be opportunities for people to rent out the space and have events. I think there’s been a lot of interest.

What is your experience in the arts and culture scene here, and how you think that Sandbox will support it?

I grew up in New York City, so I’m used to so much more than what there is to offer here. D.C. is a great city, but Georgetown itself is kind of stagnated in terms of culture. It doesn’t feel as lively as it could be, especially with all these students who could contribute to that culture, but just aren’t able to because there aren’t enough spaces for them.

I think that providing this space as a first step could be a catalyst for that artistic scene to explode. In recent years at Georgetown, it has been growing, like with the group GUCCI—that did not exist when I was a freshman. It’s really new and very different to have this consolidation of artistic people communicating with each other, because before, it felt more disjointed and less coordinated in friend groups who you had to know to engage with. Now, you’re in the GUCCI page, and everyone is communicating with you. It’s awesome. I think that [Sandbox] has the potential to move Georgetown in that direction. Additionally, I think that there is a status quo of “This is what Georgetown represents. It should stay that way forever.” I just don’t agree with that, so I see Sandbox as my contribution in pushing Georgetown culture forward.

How do you consider yourselves more than a coffee shop?

The culture and late-night hours, I think, are big. And even apart from coffee shops alone, in terms of providing ample working space, I think that also differentiates us. Also, the staffing model that we’ve been operating under [includes] a lot of students. That’s certainly different from the other coffee shops in Georgetown.

Do you think that being largely student-run is going to give Sandbox a different atmosphere?

I think so. There are definitely positives and negatives to employing [so many] students. Positives are that people are young, they are energetic, they are reliable. Negatives are that with a lot of part-time employees, when you need to communicate something, it needs to be communicated to everyone. [Having] more people makes that harder. But that’s the way we did it, and that’s the way I wanted to do it from the start. I think it’s worth it.

What do you envision happening for Sandbox in the long run, and how do you plan on making this vision a reality?

I see so much value in [Sandbox’s] cultural contributions to Georgetown, so making it sustainable from the beginning is very important. Many startups and small businesses close within one or two years of operation. Making sure that [Sandbox] will live for more than one or two years, to guarantee it has those contributions for future generations to come. I could also see a really fun culture, other than the events happening there, [between] the workers and customers and residents. Students from other schools could come, families could come, high schoolers could come, just a mix. Ideally, if I could walk in there in a year and see a beautiful cross-section of students, residents, students from other places, that would be awesome. Making it sustainable financially and operationally is how we get there.

Why should people be excited about Sandbox?

It’s going to be different. [Sandbox will be] a very distinct place from what’s surrounding it, from what you would think should be in Georgetown—an escape that you don’t have to take a $10 Uber to get to. We’ll also have high-quality coffee at extremely affordable prices. We have a vendor, Ceremony, who has amazing coffee, and they source their single origins and blends seasonally so it’s always really fresh: they’re the real deal. We’re going to have a lot of culture, I hope. There’s this quality of welcomeness that we’ve been emphasizing so much in the vision, for both our customers and employees. We want everyone in the store to feel comfortable, like they belong there. We’re also going to have a board game cabinet!

Graney is an English Sophomore and Managing Editor.

PC: Maria Gaspar.

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