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 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
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.
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
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.
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
Time 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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!