Made with care: Barista, cashier provides cheer, daily comfort through genuine conversation


Matt Petres

STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART. Ariel Williams laughs as she converses with a customer. Ms. Williams keeps conversation flowing as she prepares drinks and hands out baked goods. Talking to her in the coffee shop has become a highlight of many people’s days.

Peter Cox, City Life Editor

Before school starts, and during the first few periods, people filter in and out of a small café with fogged glass windows just off the Judd lobby. Inside, a woman stands behind a counter making coffee drinks and handing out baked goods from the display case. 

She already knows the name and order of almost everyone who walks in. As she quickly prepares orders, Ariel Williams is also holding a stream of conversation with each customer: asking them how their day has been, how classes are going, if they’re tired. 

Ms. Williams is a constant bright spot in the often stressful lives of U-High students, providing an energizing drink and some kind words when they’re most needed.

Ms. Williams has worked for food service vendor Quest Food at Lab since November 2019 and started working in the coffee shop in January 2020. She transferred from a Quest location downtown after it closed and moved to Lab so she could work closer to her home in Hyde Park.

“I live right here, like literally a block away,” Ms. Williams said. “When the track team is running, they’re running past my apartment.”

Ms. Williams, who goes by Ms. Ariel to students, opens the coffee shop every school day at 7:30 a.m. and stays until 11:30, when the shop closes for lunch. The shop reopens at 1:30 p.m., and though Ms. Williams’ shift ends at 2:30, the shop stays open until 3:45.

        For students who get coffee from her every morning, talking to Ms. Williams becomes a simple pick-me-up. Senior Michael Ewing is one such student.

“Since we see each other literally at the beginning of every day, and usually at the end sometimes, we always check in on each other, ask how we’re doing,” Michael said. “Even when there’s a lot of people, she always makes sure to wave to me whenever I walk in or whenever I’m leaving.” 

Last May, the Class of 2024 recognized Ms. Williams as an Unsung Hero for her contributions to the Lab community. The award, determined via student nomination, is given to someone at the school whose positive influence has gone unnoticed. 

“I wasn’t expecting it, I wasn’t,” Ms. Williams said. “I was very honored and shocked. And I cried, I cried the whole ceremony.” 

When asked about people’s appreciation of her, Ms. Williams laughs it off lightly.

“I don’t know how I feel about it because it’s really sweet,” Ms. Williams said. “It means a lot to me because I just want everybody to be happy and especially here, it’s like really stressful. It’s stressful for the teachers. It’s stressful for y’all, the students.” 

She wants to do what she can to help people in the Lab community deal with the stress she sees that they’re experiencing. 

“I just want the coffee shop to be like a safe space,” she said. “I want everybody to be like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna come here. I’m gonna get my drink and I’m gonna be OK for the 10 minutes I’m here in line.’”

Sophomore Sinead Nagubadi can attest that Ms. Williams has succeeded in this goal. 

“She’s just the sweetest person,” Sinead said. “She always makes my day. She always has a really nice conversation with me.”

Besides talking to people, Ms. Williams also tries to bring additional food into the cafe. She recently got marshmallow and peppermint syrup so that she could make seasonal winter drinks for students. It might seem like a small thing, but she personally advocated for something to make students’ days just a bit better. 

It would be easier for Ms. Williams to just do her job without putting in any extra effort. But that just isn’t the way that she sees the world.

“I like to treat people how I want to be treated,” Ms. Williams said. “And I don’t want people to just act like I’m just like a number or some money. I’m not just money walking around. I’m a whole person, so I want to treat people like that, too.”