There beneath suburban skies lies a ripped-out sign with five holes and two wires sticking out of it. After five years, UNSW’s beloved café, Penny Lane, has closed its doors.
The disappearance of Penny Lane came so quietly it was almost a whisper. It appears most students did not even notice. After all, there were no official announcements, with the last post by the café’s Instagram being from December 2022 — one that showed employees seemingly in celebrative spirits for the Christmas holidays.
When I arrived on campus at the beginning of the year, situated beneath the glass dome at Morven Brown now, is only a barren landscape. Penny Lane’s doors were shut tight, with an empty wooden sign in place of its logo that at once cracked open my heart. Was it really over? Whenever someone asked me what my favourite place on campus was, my answer was always that — Penny Lane. The Beatles-inspired, free cookie with your coffee, perfectly toasted banana bread pull-up. After five years, it has become not only an institution for a plethora of meetups by university societies, but where many successful trivia and quiz nights also conspired. For staff and students alike, Penny Lane, with its casual dining and wonderful pub food, represented a place well-cherished.
The only announcement that the university made upon the matter appeared on the UNSW Estate Management website. With little explanation as to why, it says, ‘After 5 years on campus, Penny Lane Café has decided to close its doors on December 21st’.
After the grief, I was awash in curiosity. And so, I reached out to the only person who would be able to answer these questions. I spoke to Peter Botros, the café’s owner, to find out more.
It turns out, the decision to close Penny Lane was Peter’s own, made only two weeks before Christmas. When asked, he attributed the reasons for Penny Lane’s closure to “reduced foot traffic on campus and other changes to the hospitality industry”.
“Both the government and UNSW provided support at the early stages of the pandemic; however, the support ran dry very quickly and we felt that we were on our own again,” he says.
The “seasonality of the business due to its location at the university” was a taxing barrier. On how it’s particularly challenging for campus businesses to survive today, Peter comments, “There are some serious pressures on all business owners today. Cost of goods, inexperienced staff expecting unrealistic returns, and shortage of staff from travel restrictions. Campus businesses experience increased pressure because of a lack of control over staff and student attendance on campus.”
One sees this struggle in the shadows of other businesses at UNSW. Plume Café (previously known as ‘Atomic’) was forced to shut down twice. Once, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the second, at the peak of the Delta strain outbreak in 2021.
To Peter, the best thing about working at Penny Lane was “meeting and chatting with people as they waited for their coffee or meal.”
“It wasn’t just a business transaction for me,” he says. “It was great to see our regulars day in and out as well as being able to provide restaurant service to students and staff in a campus environment.
“It’s easy for someone to grab a bite from a take-away shop, but it’s different when you are in a sit-down café. There is more time and a better environment for creating lasting connections.”
But there is an added cost for this delivery. “It is unreasonable for this kind of service to be maintained on campus unless there are some concessions made for the operation to be viable to a prospective operator,” says Peter.
It is not known what will occupy the empty space left by Penny Lane. All I know is that it will continue to remain in the ears and eyes of the people who loved it.
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say, “Goodbye”.
Editor: Avani Ram