Stanford’s student bar, The Arbor, will return in spring quarter after its winter hiatus, offering students a casual place to hang out with friends, order food and beer and listen to live entertainment on Thursday and Friday nights. Thursday evenings will feature trivia contests, and Fridays will have live music.

“The Arbor is a great place to just get together at the end of the week and spend time outside in a low-stakes setting with background entertainment,” said Jared Poblete, Class of ’23 and part of the student team that organizes the events. “You can sit around with your friends at night, with the lights all around you and the heaters. It’s a really nice space to be in.”

Producing this type of casual gathering spot takes creativity and attention to detail – qualities that Jeanette Smith-Laws, director of student unions and operations for the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs, has in abundance.

To create the space, Smith-Laws worked with Ray Klein, the owner of The Treehouse, the main restaurant associated with The Arbor. Klein and his family also own and operate two other campus restaurants: CoHo and Ray’s Grill.

Smith-Laws and Klein’s enduring partnership and friendship have been critical to making these student hangouts warm and welcoming havens for generations of Stanford students. 

Finding the right space

In 2019, a group of students approached Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole about increasing social programming on campus. They needed space to bring one idea, The Arbor, to life.

Students and staff seated outdoors at The Arbor

Jeanette Smith-Laws wearing one of her many hats, assisting with a Super Bowl party at the Arbor. (Image credit: Office of Student Engagement)

“They talked about needing food, wanting to be able to serve beer and wanting to create a really social space where students could gather and hear music,” Smith-Laws said. “That’s what I do – I create something out of nothing. It is the joy of the work that I do. I spend most of my time figuring out how to make things happen, versus how to not make things happen.”

She listened to the students’ ideas, homing in on what sort of space they needed to make The Arbor successful. Then she and the students set out to tour campus in a golf cart, considering the pros and cons of a variety of locations.

“In order for it to be live and active, it really needed to have a location that gave it visibility,” she said. But it also needed infrastructure: a way to serve food, a restaurant with a license to serve alcohol, access to restrooms.

Ultimately, the group chose the location in Tresidder Memorial Union. It has access to food and alcohol and is under the purview of Student Affairs. It also “has its own energy,” Smith-Laws said – an important consideration for keeping the space vibrant even when The Arbor is closed.

“The Arbor is alive and active and visible even when there’s no programming in it,” she said. “It’s a place where people love to be – grad students, undergrads, families with kids on the weekends.”

Building The Arbor

Smith-Laws manages the facilities used by Student Affairs, overseeing conference and meeting services, student meeting and event venues, outdoor and multiuse space, restaurants, and leases and contracts.

“I am the person with all the hats on,” she said. “When you go to a small town, the person that pulls you over and welcomes you to town is me, the traffic cop is me, the mayor is me and the judge is me – and then when you go to the restaurant, the person that has the coffee is me.”

One of those hats: that of the person who made students’ dream of The Arbor become a reality.

Smith-Laws, Klein and student leaders put The Arbor together in less than a month, installing lighting, building a platform and fixing up communal tables and other furniture. The repurposed patio tables, for example, are older than most students on campus.

“I just keep painting them because I hate to see landfill, and they’re still good and it’s sustainable,” Smith-Laws said.

The goal was to “make it warm and not just a beer garden,” Klein said. “It’s a place to meet and have community.”

Klein says he is “just an assistant” – both in the initial creation of The Arbor and in the ongoing work of running it. Someone on his staff meets weekly with the committee that runs The Arbor when it’s open to determine what special menu items to offer on which days, and he also has staff present in the evenings when The Arbor is open.

“My role is basically to assist and execute the programs that the students want to have,” Klein said. “It works out very well because there’s a lot of communication.”

Helping generations of students

Smith-Laws has been at Stanford for almost 40 years, and Klein for over 35.

“My entire career has been working with students,” said Smith-Laws. She started in what is now called Residential & Dining Enterprises during “crash week” – the week between the academic year and summer conferences, when residence halls have to be cleaned out.

“It looks like people had 5 minutes to evacuate – everything students didn’t want, they left behind,” she said.

It was a good introduction to the work she would continue for the next four decades: doing intense work during the short windows when the campus is quiet, then making sure the spaces operate smoothly when campus life is in full swing.

“The breaks when people are not around – those are when I get my major projects done,” she said.

Along the way, she and Klein have built a solid partnership.

“Whenever she needed to get something done, my answer was always yes,” Klein said.