Hot Chocolate, Hot DTL

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City of Lights in front of the 1826 Store

It’s been three years since we last wrote about Lowell’s annual post-Thanksgiving Parade, City of Lights. The highlight (in our humble opinion) of City of Lights is the annual hot chocolate competition. Businesses across downtown offer tiny cups of cocoa for 25 cents each, all for a shot at the coveted hot chocolate competition award. We chose Café Pastiche’s Brazilian cocoa, which sadly didn’t place… and Café Pastiche was closed a year later.

The other competitors that year were Rosie’s Café, Brew’d Awakening Coffehaus, Sweet Lydia’s, and Time Out Café. Coincidentally, those four businesses all competed this year, along with veteran Cobblestones and newcomers Hypertext Bookstore, Coffee and Cotton, Gallery Z, and UnchARTed.

That same year, the Lowell Small Business Center did a huge push for Small Business Saturday, and we talked about other cities’ small business campaigns. In that spirit, we want to talk about each of the businesses that competed, and even reached out to them to get their thoughts on the festival, Lowell’s business scene, and what people can do to support small businesses.

Rosie’s Café

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Rosie Suprenant

Rosie’s has been holding down the JAM District since before the City started calling it the JAM district. Rosemarie Surprenant launched her café twenty years ago on 10 Hurd Street, between what is now Element Care and UTEC. Her supplier was Peak Coffee, a Billerica business launched in 2006 by Peter Kagunye, a Kenyan immigrant. Back then, it was Batian Peak Coffee, named after the highest mountain in Kenya. When Mr. Kagunye decided to move on in 2012, Rosie’s bought Peak Coffee, and began roasting coffee and distributing tea themselves. In 2014, she moved to her current location next between Jackson and Middlesex, near Mill No. 5 and Garcia Brogan’s.

So what about the hot chocolate? She’s been doing the contest for six years, and this year she made an amazing, subtle caramel hot cocoa. I say amazing, because Rosie’s was our last stop, Aurora and I had a gallon of chocolate each at that point, and we still loved Rosie’s. Rosie loves the festival, too. She reported that business was good, and we aren’t surprised—her coffee is great and a bag of fresh-ground coffee makes a great (fair-trade) gift.

I like seeing the families, happy and stopping by with their baggies of quarters. -Rosie Suprenant

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Brew’d Awakening Coffehaus

If Rosie’s is the anchor of the JAM district, Brew’d Awakening is the anchor of Market Street. I’d hazard a guess that Andy Jacobson has won the hot chocolate contest more times than any other business, and has been competing since the contest started eight years ago. This year, it was a French Toast hot chocolate with a tiny piece of French toast in every cup. The special extras always put their cocoa over the top.

Baristas working at Brewd Awakening Coffehaus

Brew’d Awakening crew doing what they do best, with Andy Jacobson (right)

Andy opened Brew’d Awakening in 2005, leaving the world of finance to create a unique gathering place and choosing Lowell’s downtown to reflect that uniqueness. I admit, I end up at Brew’d just to listen to the music, Freeverse Open Mic Night every first and third Tuesdays, see friendly faces, and get another mark down toward a free coffee. (Seven coffees, and then you can get any type of coffee for free!) Andy says that there have been a lot of recent changes for the good in DTL, including going from one to two-way, MCC and UMass Lowell’s growth, and a lot of new residents. City of Lights brings a spike of new customers as well—as long as the weather is good.

I have seen a lot of changes for the good. The fact that MCC and UML has more of a profile downtown has helped. Plus, the growing residents and two way traffic. So overall I have seen increases from the previous year. -Andy Jacobson

Sweet Lydia’s

If Brew’d isn’t the hot chocolate champion, then Sweet Lydia’s is. “Sweet” Lydia Blanchard ran a Kickstarter campaign to help open up her downtown shop in 2012 after three years of candy catering out of an incubator kitchen and years before that making candy as a hobby. I’m pretty sure she’s entered the hot chocolate competition with a different recipe and a signature marshmallow each time. This year, she had a dark chocolate, which is my favorite kind of chocolate.

Customers at Sweet Lydias Candy Shop

Sweet Lydia’s is another Lowell success story, as she’s branched from the shop with a stall at the new Boston Public Market. The newest, coolest project was a pop-up shop last spring in Newton.

Time Out Café

Customers at Time Out Cafe in Lowell MATime Out Café is perhaps the least well-known out of this list to some, but a new Lowell institution to others, especially our Hispanic population. I know I stop here for Empanadas often. The small storefront at 72 Merrimack Street has a wide variety of Dominican, Afro-Puerto Rican, Spanish, and American fare, along with breakfast, great coffee, and (at least during the competition) really great Hot Chocolate. Their Mexican-style cocoa with cinnamon was a clear frontrunner in my mind. They’ve been doing this since we moved here—for three years!

Time Out Cafe in Lowell MATime Out opened in 2010, and Yvette Anil has seen her business grow over the last six years:

We are family business, is not easy, is a lot of work, but every year is better than the last one, and we hope still for many years more. -Yvette Anil

Check out a great review of the restaurant on Life as a Maven.

Cobblestones

We admit it. We didn’t make it to Cobblestones in time. We didn’t try their hot chocolate, but I’m sure it was as delicious as their Truffle Fries. That’s right—you can get amazing fries flavored with truffle oil at Cobblestones, along with all sorts of other fine dishes. The restaurant opened in 1994 in the Yorick Club building, which was built as a home for mill managers in the 1850s but spent most of its life as a young gentleman’s club. The restaurant retains its upper-class Victorian charm, and each year submits an equally classy cocoa selection. The owners, who also operate Moonstones, generously contribute to a number of Lowell causes and the restaurant is highly-regarded in the Merrimack Valley.

UnchARTed

Lindsey Parker of UnchARTed Gallery in Lowell MA

Lindsey prepares the special Almond Joy Hot Cocoa

Depending on your perspective, UnchARTed is either brand new or a Lowell institution. Mike Dailey and Lindsey Parker have been running gallery/studio space under the name for more than 5 years, but the impressive Market Street location—and the bar and pizza—have been a great new addition to the downtown this year. If you have not tried their pizza, sold by the slice or whole, you are missing out on one of the best things to happen to downtown this year. The music and their striking gallery shows are matched only by their awesome community spirit: Mike and Lindsey are happy to work with folks running a fundraiser or putting on a Skill Share (not that we haven’t done both!)

This year for the cocoa challenge they had vegan almond joy cocoa, which is a good peek at their playful and progressive spirit. They said they doubled their dinner business the night of City of Lights. We asked what folks can do to help downtown business, and Lindsey said:

Spread the word ya heard?! If you love us, shout it from the rooftops! Also, defend Lowell when you are talking to someone from “outside” who is spewing garbage about it. Lowell is a cool place to be and on the up and up and not in a pretentious way either. -Lindsey Parker

Coffee and Cotton

Mill No. 5 is a constantly evolving source of Lowell cool and excitement. We last wrote about Mill No. 5 about two-and-a-half years ago, and it’s added a yoga studio, a market, a toy store, a vintage bookstore, the “Hi-Hat” stage near the elevator, and most famously, the Luna Theater in the meantime. Coffee and Cotton opened there in September, 2014, and it might have the most youthful crowd of any of the coffee shops, a haven for college students.

Young women serving hot chocolate at Mill No 5

The Coffee and Cotton crew serving up a keg of cocoa

For their very first cocoa contest this year, they offered matte cocoa with meringue, and that’s the kind of unique specials they often feature. In addition to coffee, they serve gourmet grilled cheese, breakfast sandwiches, Kombucha tea, and a variety of other drinks and danishes. Strangely enough, they do not serve cotton. We asked about how we can support them, and they had an interesting answer:

Besides shopping/eating locally, a great way to support local businesses is to provide valuable feedback to the owner/general manager. Our guests are our most valuable resource when it comes to making decisions about what direction we’d like to take our business. -Addie, manager

Hypertext

Books at Hypertext with hot cocoa

Monkey Jungle Cocoa!

We’ve had a special place in our hearts for Hypertext ever since they moved in and we got to help them decorate their window for last year’s City of Lights with DIY Lowell. They missed City of Lights, but opened just in time for 2016 Winterfest. Sam and Sheila, the sisters that run it, are extremely fun and added a much-needed missing element to the downtown. Their jungle cocoa came with a tiny plastic monkey! Because the recipe had bananas.

The sisters opened the bookstore/café combining their passions of coffee and fiction—and their desire to get away from a 9-to-5 job with a commute to Boston. Although they’ve reported that running an independent business is truly demanding, they’ve made it their own with poetry readings, book clubs, and even a funky (literally) underground movie showing during Halloween.

Hypertext Bookstore in Lowell MA

Gallery Z

Baristas at Gallery Z

Putting the finishing touches on Bailey’s Hot Cocoa at Gallery Z

The only reason Gallery Z should be last in any list is alphabetically. The former Zeitgeist Gallery, under new ownership, has downtown’s newest café in the back. Zeitgeist’s owners “felt they had taken it as far as they could,” according to new owner Patty DiStefano in a Howl interview, and she wanted to take it to a new step with performances and a cozy, quiet 1960s-style coffehouse. We hadn’t made it there yet, so the cocoa contest managed to introduce even us seasoned downtown residents to something new. They offered a Bailey’s inspired cocoa that was very tasty indeed; we’ll have to go back again soon and check out their other options.

Tables and chairs at Gallery Z in Lowell MA

1960s-inspired cafe space at Gallery Z

Local Business in Lowell

As always, the holiday season is an amazing time to support local business, but we asked each of the cocoa competitors what Lowell boosters can do besides shop locally.

Spreading the word online and in person came up from every single person who answered—downtown Lowell’s still fighting a bad reputation. It’s hard to believe, since the only Lowell we know has been clean, low on crime, and filled with innovative businesses. Yet the business owners said a negative perception is still there.

An interesting point was brought up that local businesses have to pay credit card fees, so save the credit card for Target and use cash at local businesses when possible. Don’t be afraid to use a card if you have it, though—every business we visited accepted both cash and cards.

Each also reported that business had only been getting better year-over-year, and that festivals like City of Lights didn’t just boost business that day, but exposed new customers they had never met to their cafés. As we talk about what we can do to keep Lowell an active place seven days a week, let’s not lose track of showing our best side whenever we throw a party.

Finally, one thing that was especially notable—many of the business owners talked about their high school crowds in their emails or in newspaper interviews, from kids getting mystery-flavor coffee at Rosie’s to Brew’d Awakening talking about their teen crowd just being themselves. It’s notable that Lowell’s young people make such an impact on the downtown in a lot of great ways.

A follow-up post may explore the best way to spur economic development with festivals—perhaps just in time for Winterfest. Until then, leave a message about your favorite hot chocolate or local eatery!

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Lowell Makes shop

Hot Cocoa

You can even take Sweet Lydia’s Hot Chocolate home!

Emanuel Boutique in downtown Lowell MA

Emanuel Boutique dressed up for the holiday

Zen Foodist in downtown Lowell MA presenting hot dog

The Zen Foodist braves the weather for his signature hot dogs

Decoration at Persona Lowell MA

Holiday Rocket (?) at Persona Goods

Angela Ales and Roneld Lores in their duo exhibit " A Cuban and a Colombian walk into a Bar"

Lady at UnchARTed clearly uninterested in hot cocoa

Lamps were fire extinguishers now they light up the place

Awesome upcycled lamps at Gallery Z

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Singing at the holiday marketplace on Merrimack

Gingerbread House

New meaning to “small” business owner!

Float in front of City Hall

MCC’s float shows off Lowell’s diversity, while Old City Hall shows off its history

Big crowd listening to Santa's wise wods

City officials reported the crowd was one of the best of recent years

U Lunch at UTEC

There are lots of delicious lunch destinations in downtown Lowell, and it’s our civic duty to occasionally forgo the squished pbj at the desk and treat ourselves to a lunch out. Whenever we put our money where our mouth is (get it?) and go out to eat we do our part to support a vibrant, bustling Lowell. But in terms of benefit to Lowell for your sandwich buck? It’s going to be pretty hard to beat Cafe UTEC.

I’m sure most people know what UTEC is, but if this is the first thing you’re hearing about it, basically, UTEC is exactly the kind of organization you hope your community has. They reach out to youth in the community, specifically targeting kids who are heading in directions that bring chaos and violence. They provide dedicated, accepting, nonjudgemental community and guidance that helps get them on the path to be productive and empowered citizens.

"UTEC offers all youth a clean slate"

“UTEC offers all youth a clean slate”

UTEC does this in many different ways, and with many different tools, but one of the biggies is their workforce development training, where they essentially have the youth work in-house, learning both job skills and the consistent habits that an employer will expect. UTEC builds furniture, does maintenance work, caters events, and now, they run a restaurant.

Cafe UTEC's bright and cheery space.

Cafe UTEC’s bright and cheery space.

Cafe UTEC would be a great place to go when you’re having a glum Monday- it has great energy. The kids that work there have a lot of warmth and enthusiasm, and there’s a steady hum of youthful chatter and bustling activity.  UTEC’s culture is all about positivity, just being there puts me in a better mood. It’s a breath of fresh air in a world (and occasionally a city) that can be pretty grouchy.

The food is equally fresh and energizing. Cafe fare with lots of nice lighter options, and seasonally, veggies from the community gardens of Mill City Grows. Everything I’ve had there has been flavorful and thoughtfully put together but not pretentious. Excellent vegetarian and healthy choices that don’t break the budget: $5 salads, $7 soup and sandwich combos.

I’m working my way through the menu, and I’ve been happy with everything I’ve ordered so far. I’d especially recommend the eggplant panini, the grilled cheese and soup combo, and the cinnamon-spiced hot chocolate. I’m also happy to report there’s a tofu bahn mi. Chris and I have been so far been thwarted in our love of Vietnamese sandwiches here in Lowell, for whatever reason places don’t offer the tofu option that seems to be common elsewhere.

Tasty trio: Eggplant panini, bahn mi,  grilled cheese with soup.

Tasty trio: Eggplant panini, bahn mi, grilled cheese with soup.

All of that deliciousness is made and served by youth learning specific workforce skills and lifelong workplace habits in a supportive, caring environment. Lots of kids from difficult backgrounds want to make their lives better and build a real future. But without the skills, and with so many things working against them, it’s easier said then done. If things go wrong and you’re late to work at Dunkin’ Donuts, you get fired. If you’re late to work at UTEC, they work with you to figure out what’s getting in your way, logistically or even emotionally. That extra support is the help youth need to make real, positive changes in their lives. Eating at Cafe UTEC is a great way to support those youth and these programs, and any profits the Cafe makes will go right back into the program.

Cafe UTEC is located downtown at 41 Warren St, right across the street from the Umass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. They’re open for lunch Monday-Thursday, with occasional special dinner events. You can check their facebook here for specials and deals (on Wednesday you got a free drink if you wore something Patriots themed). If you don’t already follow UTEC’s main facebook page you totally should, I find it to be a real bright spot in my facebook feed. Finally, they have a new blog over at the Sun to add to your blogroll. UTEC’s always busy, so there’s always something new to hear about. I look forward to whatever they do next!

First Thursdays: Art Battles and Big Pictures

Lowell’s First Thursdays is an exciting monthly event encouraging visitors downtown to explore shops and museums the first Thursday of each summer month. Born out of a brainstorming session held in April, the monthly event enjoys support from the Council Organization of Lowell (COOL), the City of Lowell, and Lowell National Historical Park. However, the event is at its heart grassroots, making it an interesting example of businesses and museums organizing an event without a formal, supporting organization.

Live Art Battle in Lowell on First Thursday artists painting

Artists went head-to-head in a contest that was decided by audience applause. More photos on their facebook page.

Last week was the third “First Thursday,” and from my discussions with folks at a few galleries, the most successful yet. One participating business manager told me that she was beginning to see brand-new clientele at last week’s event. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was the first not to be rained upon.

Aurora and I kicked off our Thursday experience by meeting a meetup.com group at the “Our City Live Art Battle,” where artists compete for a chance for $1,000 at the Downtown Arts Fest in Nashua. One artist from Lowell and one from Nashua furiously painted two very different works of art: although each started as abstract fields of color, one slowly morphed into an idyllic scene while the other became even more abstract: a shock of color violently smashing through the painting’s white border.

As we chatted with others from the meetup group, members from Nashua’s Positive Street Art started streetdancing. A few children joined in the dancing and painted at the kids’ art table. Meanwhile, others drifted in and out to catch a glimpse, many of which were passing-by and curious.

Dancers from Positive Street Art in Lowell MA Market Mills

The music and dancers activated the space, encouraging a few onlookers to join in!

After the Art Battle, the Meetup group visited two local galleries: Brush and Zeitgeist. The group was surprised by the secret Zeitgeist holds: a funky vintage clothing shop hidden away, appropriately named the Back Room. I heard some marvel at how varied the subjects and styles were in each gallery.

Three paintings at Brush Gallery Lowell MA

The Brush’s current exhibit is inspired by gardens (photo: Maria)

For those that don’t know, Zeitgesit stays fresh by keeping one side devoted to rotating shows from visiting artists, and maintaining the other side with the latest works from members of their collaborative. I also appreciate its large variety of affordable art, including prints, jewelry, 3″x3″ paintings, t-shirts, mugs, and the like. One can purchase quite a number of unique works for $10 or $20.

As the group explored, we saw artists from Western Avenue Studios/Loading Dock Gallery presenting a travelling art fashion show, wearing art clothing and carrying signs encouraging onlookers to “ask about what I’m wearing.” I hate to say, we didn’t ask, but we enjoyed looking! The meetup.com group finished the night at Athenian Corner, although by then, Aurora and I had to leave.

Building Toward a Big Picture

I noticed a great number of folks going through the galleries and walking down the cobblestone streets: a compliment to other downtown events, from painting at Tutto Bene or the outdoor music of Athenian Corner. This highlighted for me the way each month must build upon the last, as Aurora and I attended a previous First Thursday that did not seem to reach its potential, even taking the rain into account. For example, shops advertising promotions closed hours before the event’s 9 pm end time, and I heard the musicians at Whistler House had sparse audiences. However, August’s event was much livelier, everything was as advertised, and I imagine September’s will be even busier.

Mary Hart, who was instrumental in kicking off First Thursdays (link to Lowell Sun), was kind enough to give me some inside information about the event. She agreed, “We have had mixed success in attracting crowds, but we seem to be building.” I believe it is critical that every participating business and museum stay open the extra hours, keep the sale going, and keep participating. It was personally quite disappointing to find sales ended or businesses closed, and I imagine that others finding closed doors might not come back. I think the larger story, however, is that a handful of folks who enjoyed the early events despite the rain are helping to build buzz and each month brings more visitors.

This seems to serve as a good lesson for similarly recurring events, as it might be easy to be discouraged, especially when weather doesn’t cooperate. However, momentum may very well be building. Notably, I haven’t found this type of advice anywhere in downtown revitalization guides, and I believe it deserves further study.

What’s the Goal?

An interesting question is one posed by the National Trust’s Main Street Center:

Before you create any special event as a part of a campaign, ask yourself: What is the purpose of this event? Which of the largest market segments will the event attract?

The folks from the meetup group were from many places: Lowell, the immediate suburbs, and even New Hampshire. Is this the target market the event attracts? Ms. Hart revealed that the group behind First Thursdays hoped to adopt monthly “open galleries” events that other cities (including Worcester and Boston) organize to entice downtown employees to linger after work and leverage convenient evening hours and proximity of museums and galleries, attracting outside visitors. Goals included:

  1. Attract more visitors to [the group’s] sites
  2. Encourage longer visits including meals and purchases from downtown businesses
  3. Build a loyal following and establish as a regular event

With that in mind, I wonder where the “downtown employee” and “outside visitor” markets could be even better reached and what businesses critical to those markets might be being left out. I pondered this while watching the Art Battle, realizing the only thing that could have made the event better was if it were in an area with more foot traffic, perhaps catching folks that walk to and from the Leo Roy (Market Street) garage, capturing people going home from work who might not be tuned in to any Lowell media. They may ignore a banner, but they certainly won’t ignore a group watching artists speed-paint against one another!

This also builds buzz, as mentioned before: perhaps the passer-bys don’t stay that day, but they’ll make it to the next one: once again, using each event to build momentum on the next.

A Jump-Started Test Drive

Ms. Hart explained that this was a “test drive” of a monthly cultural night. After the first discussion with artists and gallery people, downtown museums and the National Park were invited to a meeting to discuss the possibility. Twelve groups were represented at that meeting. I understand the group chose Thursday to avoid conflicts with existing weekend events.

Ultimately, participants agreed to share work of creating themes, maps, and schedules and pay a nominal fee to cover printing costs. The group accomplished nearly all its advertising through social media, with each participant doing the work to market the event. The group chose venues specifically to minimize expense and the need for city permits. In addition, the organizer accomplished business outreach by visiting each door-to-door. Ultimately, the level of activity in such a short time is among the most exciting elements of the effort:

What we have achieved, and this is the best part, is to identify and gather a core of committed people willing to get something started without grant money, extensive proposals or endless meetings! -Mary Hart, Artist & Event Organizer

This means that not only does each event, even rainy events, build buzz, but they also provide a learning opportunity for the next event.

What’s Next?

Photo by Fresh Air Fridays

Photo by Fresh Air Fridays

Immediately next is Thursday, September 4. In Ms. Hart’s words, “an opportunity to gather and celebrate the richness and excitement of our institutions.” Information will be posted on COOL’s website as soon as it is available. The First Thursdays group will soon discuss and vote upon next steps after September; the event may continue in a different form over the winter or may be summer-only. Ms. Hart mentioned the regardless need to identify ways to advertise outside social media.

In addition, Fresh Air Fridays will continue through August: artist markets, the Lowell Farmers Market, and street performers all complementing the Lowell Summer Music Series.

For me, these events beg a question: is it better to cast a wide net or tailor an event to a specific group? I could imagine a complimentary monthly event designed to attract families with young children or University Students. If each week, a different event could play downtown’s strengths to a person with different interests? Even better! I truly believe Lowell has enough talented, creative folks to support it.

Kids' painting table at Art Battle.

Kids’ painting table at Art Battle.

Judging the finished pieces

Judging the finished pieces

Loading Dock Gallery Artists at Visitor Center

Loading Dock Gallery had a travelling fashion show: artists had a table at the National Park Visitor Center and walked in the outfits with signs “ask me about what I’m wearing.”

Sunset at Ayers Loft Gallery Lowell

A gorgeous sunset capped a perfect evening out

Five Pubs of Downtown Lowell

We aim to present all sides of Lowell in “Learning Lowell,” and we realized we had sadly been neglecting its nightlife. To remedy this, we invited anyone interested for a “Learning Lowell Pub Crawl,” an exploration of five establishments throughout downtown. We chose our destinations by word of mouth and our own curiosity, and made a plan to visit one each hour. We were happy to have a few folks join us! Here now we recreate our thoughts and reactions upon experiencing each pub.

The Worthen House

Aurora at Old Worthen House

The Old Worthen is old but comfortable, perhaps like a favorite shoe.

Fans at Old Worthen

Oldest belt-driven fans in Massachusetts.

Kirk Boott Woodcut Reproduction

We’ll go to Worthen House whenever we want to see this Kirk Boott woodcut (Image: Gutenberg Project)

Aurora: I am super-psyched to be in this bar; I’ve been wanting to come here since moving to Lowell. Poe, Kerouac, super old. This is what I was picturing when I moved to New England. And the atmosphere lives up to my expectations! Tin ceilings, wood paneling, woodcut reprints on the walls. What a cool place.

Chris:  …and the first thing that happens is that someone asks if we’re tourists. At least we can say we live downtown. Do you think that gives us any street cred?

Aurora: No, I do not. That dude did not think we were cool at all. But he was  just being helpful, letting us know they’ll turn on the historic belt-driven fans if we ask. He tells us tourists often come in just to see the fans. And when he told him what we’re doing, he suggested Friends Restaurant across the street.

Chris: Between that and Reservations, we’ll need to do a “Part II” someday. Anyway, what to drink?

Our Orders
Aurora:  I figured first stop, keep it simple. PBR.

Chris: Everyone’s excited about Yuengling coming to MA. Why not join in the excitement?

Best Part
Aurora: The best thing is absolutely the atmosphere. I feel like this place hasn’t changed in 100 years. In a good way.

Chris: This looks like great bar food. Cheese sticks, sweet potato fries, and fried pickles!

Worst Part
Aurora: But, wow, visiting here made me feel like the tourist I was.

Chris: Nah, I could come here for a late night snack and drink. But I don’t know if I’d find anyone to talk about beat poetry here. That’s what Jack Kerouac did all the time, right?

Cobblestones

Entryway into Cobblestones

But then we were directed to the “lounge.”

Doorway at Cobblestones

Is this someone’s house?

Cobblestones Lounge

The Cobblestones Lounge was hopping!

Order of Truffle Fries at Cobblestones

The majesty that is truffle fries.

Chris: Wow, what a switch! Did we wander into a New England aristocrat’s house?

Aurora: This definitely seems like a place that serves lobster. Oh man, truffle fries? What? We are ordering these.

Chris: The lounge is already packed and its only 8 pm. How are other pub crawlers going to find us? We should have made a sign!

Aurora: And just as we start to worry about this: two total strangers approach and introduce themselves. They’d moved to Lowell a few months ago and found our blog. I am not sure what’s crazier: having a blog that is read by people we have not met or having a conversation in which we’re not the Lowell newbies.

Our Orders
Chris: Three ciders to choose from. Who knew Harpoon had a cider?

Aurora: Of course, I have to order the Truffle Fries. Oh my gosh, they are amazing. I will come back just for these. I also order a delicious (but not as memorable) cider.

Best Part
Chris: Best thing? This definitely feels like the fanciest place downtown, and with so many appetizers I’d love to try.

Aurora: This is definitely delicious… and slightly indulgent.

Worst Part
Chris: Right. But, you know, for a place called Cobblestones, there’s only a handful of them outside on the patio.

Aurora: It’s probably too fancy for my blood, at least on the regular. Oh, wow, how can it be time to go already?! Onto Fuse!

Fuse Bistro

Fuse Bistro

Fuse has a low-key atmosphere and a diverse crowd.

Table filled with drinks

We started to get creative with our drink orders.

Fuse Bistro is in a renovated firehouse with lovely outdoor seating (when it isn't raining)

Fuse Bistro is in a renovated firehouse with lovely outdoor seating (when it isn’t raining) Photo: Yelp

Aurora: Finally, one I’ve been to before. Familiar ground at last. And… they’re totally stuffed with people. One of the lessons for me tonight is that there are a ton of people doing the Friday night thing downtown, something you don’t see as much on the weekdays.

Chris: Some folks are nice enough to donate half their table and chairs to our cause. There are a lot of unique dishes—their website says it bridges “traditional tavern fare and fine dining,” which I can only assume is what is being fused. And the crowd here is so diverse.

Our Orders
Aurora: Our waitress recommends the Root Beer Float, which has marshmallow vodka in it. It seemed so innocent, and then my tongue went numb.

Chris: With Root Beer Floats and Oatmeal Cookie Maritinis, I feel boring with a seasonal Blackberry Sangria.

Best Part
Chris: Our server is rad, but that’s always been my experience here.

Aurora: I love silly cocktails. Reason enough to love Fuse.

Worst Part
Aurora: The bad part is that I can’t always afford silly cocktails. But even worse, we’re behind schedule!

Old Court

Old Court Tavern

Old Court is filled with kids on Friday nights! We should have heeded this website’s description: “That pub is always packed and a lot of fun.”

Old Court Tavern

Irish-inspired murals and pictures decorate the walls. (Image: Tripadvisor)

Old Court Tavern

A photo from Old Court’s website showing the amazing woodwork in the tavern.

Aurora: You know, I love that Old Court has this low-key, nice, mellow vibe.

Chris: I agree, I’ve always thought of Old Court as an after-work pint place.

Aurora: And I’ll just open the door, and… OH MY GOSH! Who are these people? Young kids? Students?

Chris: And are those guys in matching T-Shirts? Did we run into another pub crawl? That’s what we should have done! Learning Lowell T-Shirts! Then nobody would think we were tourists.

Aurora: Next time! This is really fun!

Our Orders
Chris: Well, we’ve done beers, ciders, and fancy cocktails. I think this atmosphere calls for hard liquor, served simply.

Aurora: After very gradually fighting our way to the front, I get a gin and tonic. It’s loud enough that the bartender holds up fingers to tell me how much it is.

Chris: I’ll get a Jack on the rocks, although in an Irish bar, maybe I should have gotten a Jameson’s!

Best Part
Aurora: Hmm. We got a little off schedule, so our time here is limited. Too busy for me tonight.

Chris: I still love the murals on the walls of this place. Someone put a lot of care into this.

Worst Part
Aurora: We should definitely come before 10:00 pm next time. I’m ready to head in a more hipsterly direction: On to Ward 8!

Ward 8

Chris: Why are we stopping? It looks like a party!

Aurora: The bouncer says that it’s at capacity. “The Howl something-or-other.

Chris: Those howlers! What should we do now?

Aurora: A few folks have been advocating for Cappy’s Copper Kettle. It’s right across the street, and all I know is that it’s next to WCAP radio station. Let’s try it.

Cappy’s Copper Kettle

Cappy's Copper Kettle Dance Floor

My camera’s lens got stuck and couldn’t focus on the furious dancing

Table full of drinks at Cappy's Copper Kettle

We were treated to a mix of country and magical 80s pop tunes.

Cappys Copper Kettle during Kerouac Festival

This image was taken during the Kerouac festival (this was supposedly another haunt of Kerouac), but captures the dance floor better than my fuzzy camera. (Image: Lowell FYSH)

Aurora: This place is enormous! I would have had no idea that this was so big.

Chris: And pretty amazing. A dance floor, wood paneling and neon bar signs everywhere, and a live DJ. Everyone here is having a ball: dancing, drinking, and chatting.

Our Orders
Aurora: I think I’ll end the night like I started it: with a PBR.

Chris: That sounds perfect. But I’d also like to order a dance with you.

Aurora: Aww, haha.

Best Part
Aurora: The music selection in here is amazing. Michael Jackson, Runaround Sue, Lionel Richie.

Chris: It is, indeed, a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. And I appreciate that nobody’s afraid to dance. What a great way to end the night.

Worst Part
Aurora: Yeah, but the worst part is that it’s time for the night to end.

Chris: Don’t worry, we can always do a sequel to visit all the places we missed.

Learning Lowell Pub Crawl: Coming to a Downtown Near You!

Hi, everyone!

Chris and I decided we need to learn more about Lowell’s fine establishments, and what better way to do that than invite our readers on a pub crawl? This Friday, we will meet at Old Worthen and move steadily eastward, one bar an hour. Everyone is invited and welcome to join for all or part of the night to share stories and good times. We don’t know if we will have a small or large group, but either way, we know it will be fun!

Schedule

Friday, June 13

  • Old Worthen – 7:00 pm
  • Cobblestones  – 8:00 pm
  • Fuse Bistro – 9:00 pm
  • Old Court  – 10:00 pm
  • Ward 8 – 11:00 pm

Pizza and Sub and…Chutney?

I’ve lived in Lowell just over half a year now, and some of the newness has worn off. I’ve been to many of the places now that peaked my initial curiosity, and I’m starting to know how to find what I’m looking for without having to explore. It’s so easy to get complacent, to feel like Lowell isn’t going to surprise me in quite the same way.

Fortunately, whenever things start to get too comfortable, there’s a new discovery. For months now I’ve been idly wondering what the chalkboard sign that says “vegetarian” outside of Kearney Square’s Pizza and Sub Stop is referring to. I figured it was probably that they had a veggie pizza option that was popular.
Chandu's spicy and vegetarian menu

Nope! There’s a whole mini menu of unexpected choices. They have unusual pizza options like “Tikka Masala” and “Chutney and Cheese” and other choices that might be best described as Indian/Italian fusion, like garlic bread stuffed with samosas.

We took home masala veggie bread and masala fries, with pretty much no idea what we might end up with.

Masala bread and fries

It was super amazingly delicious. Savory, spicy, and a little sweet. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a little bit of Indian flavor in the downtown area. Here’s a link to their site if you’d like to see the quirky menu.

Mill No. 5: Local scene blooms where once there were power looms

Visitors at Mill #5

The mill’s 4th floor is transformed into an event-filled virtual indoor streetscape, with storefronts, lounge spaces, and a small theater.

February 11, Councilor Mercier requested a report for the current status and future plans for the building known as Mill No. 5 in response to a neighbor’s concerns. [1]

However, perhaps to their surprise, Councilor Mercier and Belanger “discovered the best well-kept secret that could be incubating in an old mill building,” when touring Mill No. 5. It’s a “secret” of which many of us have been aware for some time. Before it opened last year, a Boston Globe article called it, “at heart an office building for small businesses and technology start-ups… renovated with a kind of fun-house brio to attract the eclectic, off-beat, and hip.” [2]

I’m not sure if Aurora and I are eclectic, off-beat, or hip, but we’ve started attending every “A Little Bazaar Presents,” the monthly arts/crafts/more marketplaces at Mill No. 5. At March’s marketplace, “Pulp and Press,” Aurora and I bought a gift for friends and couldn’t resist buying a few “gifts” of our own. We purchased a clock and coaster set adorned with recycled maps and moon charts from Cadence Innovative Designs. To show off our finds, we decided to let you in on the Mill No. 5 “secret.”

There’s an indescribable energy in Mill No. 5, as if one could turn a corner and find anything. Friends bump into friends while DJs or live bands play anything from the newest alternative hit to smooth jazz. Permanent shops such as Vinyl Destination complement marketplace vendors or other events, and there’s always a niche to steal away to enjoy your cup of coffee and watch the people. It’s a clubhouse and a mall without the worst bits of either.

1896 Lowell Atlas detail, L.J. Richards & Co.

1924 Atlas of Lowell detail, Richards Map Company
1977 Lowell Sanborn Insurance Map
1896, 1924, and 1977 maps. Note expansions between 1896 and 1924 and demolition of many nearby buildings by 1977. (Cool atlases and more at Center for Lowell History digital map collection)

Mill No. 5 has history. It was originally part of the Appleton Manufacturing Company. Once called the “New Mill” to distinguish it from the original 1828 mills, it was built in 1873 and expanded in 1918. It is actually the oldest surviving Appleton Mill building, as the rest of the complex was demolished and reconstructed in the early 1900s.

The mill was built for a new technology: steam power. New inventions in the 1840s greatly improved steam engine’s reliability, allowing mills to be built away from the canals.[3] Although the mill’s boilerhouse was demolished in recent years, the turbine house is still viewable from Middlesex Street. I’m told it still contains the entire original steam turbines, like something from an H.R. Giger illustration.

Appleton moved production south in 1927, but leased its buildings to the Suffolk Knitting Company and other tenants. The properties changed hands several times,[4] and in 1975, Jim Lichoulas Sr. purchased the complex.[5] By then, Suffolk Knitting had gone out of business,[6] and it was difficult to find industrial tenants.[7] However, new types of tenants moved in. Over the years, Kronos Corporation, Lowell Community Charter Public School, TransMag Inc, and even, briefly the Revolving Museum.[8] However, the fourth and fifth floors of Mill No. 5 largely remained vacant. Many properties in Lowell had difficulty redeveloping prior to mid-2000s changes in the zoning which had previously prevented residences being built in many formerly-industrial sites.[9]

An old, neglected mill building is little by little transforming into an eclectic, state of the art, awe-inspiring establishment. -Councilor Rita Mercier

The current chapter of Mill No. 5’s story begins with Constantine Valhouli and Jim Lichoulas III.[10] They were kind enough to answer a few questions about the development. They describe Mill No. 5 as a dream project more than a decade old, and they had collected architectural salvage to create the indoor streetscape for nearly that long. They wanted to provide aspects they felt were missing in Greater Boston to bring dining, shopping, entertainment, and office space under one roof, allowing people to go from work to a yoga class or movie merely by crossing a hall. In addition, the space offers short-term leases for businesses just starting out.

Mill #5 sign is hung

Walk down a crooked alley. Look both ways—make sure you haven’t been followed. Then enter and be amazed!

We’re having a lot of fun taking the time to make sure that it feels right. Also, doing it this way allows us to adapt the design based on feedback, rather than sticking to a more rigid plan of development. -Jim Lichoulas III

The process has seemed slow and meticulous at times, and that is by design. They’ve opened in phases, allowing feedback to shape both physical and event development. Some of the key attractions are planned to open summer 2014, including a farm-to-table café, yoga studio, and movie theater. A small number of neighbors have complained of this uncertainty, but by and large, neighbors have been supportive and included in the process. It’s been a balancing act for the developers, who want to maintain a “sense of discovery” while being open and inclusive. Perhaps Councilor Belanger’s council meeting suggestion that “There was a bit of mystique about the building,” was appropriate.

There seem to be so many places that over-hype themselves and market themselves to the nth degree. There’s no sense of discovery with that, no feeling of adventure or mystery. Some folks have described coming to the mill for the first time as finding this unexpected oasis at the edge of downtown Lowell. -Constantine Valhouli

The physical space is only half the story, and the developers hope to fill it with “shopping, food festivals, farmer’s markets, film festivals, author lectures, theater, dance, poetry, and shows.” “A Little Bazaar Presents” is a perfect fit for the eclectic space. Amelia Tucker, artist/community organizer, wanted to create a market event for some time, and partnering with Mill No. 5 gave her an opportunity to “push the creative boundaries around ‘craft fairs.'” She and her husband plan events months in advance, secure vendors, organize live performances, and has even invited food trucks to the events.

A Little Bazaar came to be when I began planning my first event, Totally Bazaar. “A Little Bazaar presents Totally Bazaar”- I liked it, it made me laugh, and it stuck. -Amelia Tucker

Everyone I corresponded with recognizes the mill can have impacts outside its walls, and—all kidding about “uncovering secrets” aside—this is what the City Council recognized in their February meeting. Ms. Tucker reported that A Little Bazaar has had visitors ranging from college singles to families to seniors from Greater Lowell, Boston, and as far as Providence, RI and Western Massachusetts. She encourages these visitors to “make a day of it” and visit other nearby attractions. When I asked about Mill No. 5’s neighborhood context, Mr. Lichoulas spoke of the mill’s role in connecting the neighborhood with the downtown and credited the “efforts of the JAMBRA, and of Karen Bell’s leadership in particular” to address issues and increase the neighborhood’s desirability.[11]

We’re at the edge of downtown, and some people have told us that we’re playing a role in anchoring and connecting this part of the neighborhood to the stretches of downtown that have historically had much more attention.

It’s also clear that this is just the beginning. Ms. Tucker has said she is considering outdoor markets with warmer weather and happily accepts theme suggestions for future events (Email lilbazaar@gmail.com)! In response to a question about whether Mill No. 5 is seeking additional events, Mr. Valhouli said, “Oh, hell yes.” They encourage folks with ideas both large and small to contact them. (Email hello@millno5.com)!

We would like to have a full calendar of events at the mill. Something every day. We’d love people to be able to come to the mill after work, and be able to say to themselves, I haven’t even checked the website but I know that there must be something awesome going on there. -Jim Lichoulas III

More info at https://www.facebook.com/millno5 and http://alittlebazaarpresents.blogspot.com

Upcoming Mill No. 5 Events

  • Saturday, March 15: Goodies and Games. An afternoon of fun hosted by chocolatier The Dessert Yurt. Noon-8pm. Victorian Lounge.
  • Saturday, March 29: Super Robots and Giant Monsters.  A toy and art show hosted by Collection DX, Onell Design, and Incubot. 11am-7pm.  Hallway, Amaryllis Café, Victorian Lounge.  Collectiondx.com/srgm.
  • Saturday, April 5: Digs: a home and garden marketplace. One of our ongoing First Saturday marketplaces hosted by Amelia Tucker and A Little Bazaar.  Noon-7pm.  Hallway, Café, Victorian Lounge.
  • Saturday, April 12: Chords for Cancer fundraiser.  Theater.  4pm-9pm.
  • Saturday, April 19: Thread & Groove Record Show. Hosted by Vinyl Destination and A Little Bazaar.

Mill #5's iconic winding staircase

Mill No. 5’s iconic winding staircase (Courtesy Mill No. 5 facebook)

Two visitors examine vendor table inside a "storefront" at Love Buzz

Inside one of the “storefronts” at Love Buzz

Greeting Cards from http://www.trifectaeditions.com/

Unique greeting cards for less than the price of a Hallmark from http://www.trifectaeditions.com/

Map Clock and Coasters

Clock and Coasters from Cadence Innovative Designs @ Pulp & Press

Visitors shop in the hallway of Mill #5 during "Pulp and Press"

Visitors shop in the hallway of Mill No. 5 during “Pulp and Press”

Cartoons on theater screen during Mill #5's "Pulp and Press"

I think Aurora and I could be convinced to go to classic cartoon screenings at least once a week.

[1] For Dick Howe’s report on the City Council meeting from which I quote, click here.

[2] Boston Globe, 4/8/2013.

[3] All this information and more are found in the 1979 Lowell Cultural Resources Inventory, digitally archived courtesy of UMass Lowell. The historical report is here, the individual report on the boilerhouse is here, and the report on Mill No. 5’s extension is here. I was unable to find a report on the original 1873 building.

[4] Lowell Sun, 9/30/1944.

[5] Lowell Sun, 6/4/1975.

[6] I learned a bit about what happened to the Appleton Mills after Appleton left from an oral history transcript from the “After the Last Generation” project (Leni Joyce, informant; Mehmed Ali and Gray Fitzsimons, interviewer).

[7] Lowell Sun, 8/8/1977.

[8] The Revolving Museum folded in 2010. Lowell Sun, 6/15/10.

[9] As I say in many posts, this is short-changing the subject. I really could write a whole story on the 2003 Master Plan and subsequent zoning revisions.

[10] Although his family’s business owned the property for decades, Mr. Lichoulas III became the head of the company’s Lowell efforts only in the late 2000s.

[11] Mr. Lichoulas is a member of JAMBRA’s board of directors.