Will Mory's survive? (And should it?)

Bob Handelman

Bob Handelman

Photos of team captains line the stairway. View full image

One area in which Mory's wants to make changes is student appeal. Where Mory's might have felt as comfortable as an old white oxford buck to a well-heeled Yale man of the 1950s, its atmosphere, prices, and clientele are forbidding to students today. The kitchen closes at nine o'clock, just about the time students these days are deciding what they'll do that night. The membership structure and the need for reservations are two more hurdles for spontaneously minded students, as is the dress code, modest though it is: men must wear shirts with collars, and jeans are prohibited. All of this sets up a chicken-and-egg problem—a dearth of younger faces in the club that discourages students from considering it their turf.

Still, many students report going there once or twice a year with teams, singing groups, and other campus organizations. "It's really cool to go there and see all the old pictures on the wall and all the carvings on the table and know that people who went to Yale years ago did the same things you're doing now," says former women's crew captain Jennifer Hansen ’08.

Conservative party chair Adam Hirst ’10 says that while his party and all the others of the Yale Political Union still hold weekly lunches at Mory's, the idea of a spontaneous trip to Mory's is foreign to his contemporaries. "As a member of an organization called the Conservative Party at Yale, you don't need to sell me on the idea of Mory's," says Hirst. "But the food is pretty expensive for a college student. If it's between going there or going to Yorkside, where I can get a sort-of-good slice of pizza for two dollars, that's an easy choice every time."

Even the Whiffenpoofs go somewhere else to drink after singing for their supper at Mory's on Monday night. "We would usually go to Rudy's or to the Colony Inn," says Nathan Reiff ’08, who directed the Whiffenpoofs in 2006–07.

Of course, Mory's biggest problem in attracting student business has nothing to do with economics or changing fashions. Since the drinking age was raised to 21 in 1984, one of the club's raisons d'etre—drinking the traditional alcoholic Green Cup, Red Cup, and other punches from silver cups—has been officially off limits to about three quarters of Yale's undergraduates. For many years, enforcement of the law was spotty, but the state has gotten stricter recently, and Mory's has responded by tightening its own rules. Students must show identification cards, which are run through a machine that can detect some forgeries. Those who demonstrate they are old enough to drink are fitted with bracelets and segregated from the nondrinkers in large parties. "I've got a law to obey, and I do my best," says Shumway.

Along with the traditional alcoholic cups, Mory's now offers nonalcoholic versions. Shumway uses these for an event that harks back to his days at Colonial Williamsburg: last year, he hosted an open house for freshmen to introduce them to Mory's and its traditions. Like a historical interpreter, Shumway demonstrates the cups ritual: the way the cups are passed around the table (without ever being set down), the singing by the group as one member drinks, and the spinning of the upside-down cup on the head of the person who drinks the last drop. "You don't have to be drunk to spin a cup on your head," says Shumway. (No, but it certainly helps.)

Outreach efforts like the cups demonstration have become necessary, since students don't necessarily pass down Mory's traditions to each other anymore. "If we don't expose this wonderful tradition to the undergraduates, they become alumni who don't have that frame of reference and are less likely to see Mory's as their place," says Shumway.

Shumway acknowledges that "Mory's probably missed a lot of people who are now alums," but he says he's not giving up on attracting them to the club. "One of the messages I want to give alumni is that they can come when they're in town and see what we're doing to make this place better," he says. "They don't have to be members. If we've got space, we'll be glad to serve any alum who's back in town and wants to see what's going on."

With student use in decline, alumni have been some of Mory's most stalwart patrons, and the club has for years relied on lunch and dinner trade from alumni and faculty. The university once used Mory's as a kind of de facto faculty club (an actual faculty club on Elm Street closed in the 1970s), and the daytime crowd still includes a fair number of administrators and staff attending meetings or celebratory lunches. But faculty seem to have gone the way of students in recent years. Conversations with faculty members in their 40s and 50s turned up few Mory's partisans. Some complained about the stuffy atmosphere; almost all complained about the food. "I'll bring out-of-town visitors there now and then for a full dose of Old Yale," says one of the more enthusiastic, music department chair Daniel Harrison ’86PhD. More representative is art history professor Alexander Nemerov ’92PhD. "I would enter the place only if it were absolutely a requirement," says Nemerov. "Mory's is not me."

Some of the faculty are simply finding places with food they like better, as are a lot of people in the Yale community. The last decade has seen a restaurant renaissance in New Haven, with a dazzling array of choices from Indian to Cuban to Malaysian cuisine. "Our clientele are sophisticated, smart people who know what good food is," says Cheever Tyler, "and so they tend to experiment and go to all these good restaurants."

What's more, Tyler points out, almost none of the city's restaurants or clubs have a unionized staff, as Mory's does. The club offers medical and dental benefits and a pension to its employees. All this makes Mory's labor costs higher: in 2006, according to the club's 990 tax form, Mory's took in $1,224,340 in revenue and spent $1,392,576, of which $904,942 went to salaries, benefits, and other payroll-related expenses. "That kind of labor cost would bury just about any operation," says Patricia Dailey, editorial director at Restaurants and Institutions magazine. Labor costs for restaurants typically equal about a third of gross sales; at Mory's, even when dues and other income are added to gross sales, labor costs came to 78 percent in 2006. Shumway says that although the union contract "is a factor in considering how and when we do new things," he feels he has developed a relationship with the union that is "a lot more productive than it used to be."