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

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