Tag Archives: Cambridge

Of Start Ups and Pop Ups

8 May

Pop-ups such as Community Phone fill a void where view could be long-empty storefronts

 

John LaGue, with business partner James Graham, has moved Community Phone, a small phone service provider, into pop-up space in Harvard Square: a former Starbucks on Church Street. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Community Phone, a small phone service provider, has been in pop-up digs in the heart of Harvard Square for three months now, and may be out on the street by midsummer. That might be nerve-racking for proprietors with tightly focused strategic plans and warehoused inventory; the youthful founders of this startup aren’t worried at all. They’re month to month in the old Starbucks coffee shop on Church Street and, like the low-cost cellular plans they offer and tailor to customers’ needs, are adaptable, lean and flexible.

The company, incorporated more than a year ago by James Graham and John LaGue, 20-something Wisconsinites, began hawking its product on the street, but with help from the Harvard Business Square Association and executive director Denise Jillson, reached an agreement with 31 Church St. landlord Janet Cahaly. She had her own motivation: not having a storefront vacant for a long time before finding a longer-term commercial tenant that would pay market rates.“Landlords really do want to do the right thing,” Jillson said.

The Starbucks closed in November, while the Cambridge Artists Cooperative down the street announced in April it can no longer afford to stay in Harvard Square and will be gone by June 30. A basement-level Fire + Ice restaurant that closed in September 2016 has yet to be filled – though its signs are still up. The clothing store LF closed on Church Street, telling The Harvard Crimson that “Harvard Square is not a shopping destination anymore,” while keeping a Newbury Street location in Boston.

Community Phone, whose customers have an average age around 58, has installed a rotary phone to help test customers’ mobile phones. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Community Phone buys service wholesale from cellular networks such as AT&T and Sprint and passes savings on to end users. What’s special is the customer service, LaGue said. “There’s no waiting on a phone or in a long in-store queue. You just walk in and talk to one of us,” he said, literally helping an octogenarian with a cane enter to ask a question. “Plus it’s 100 percent hassle free. You don’t have to do anything – we take care of moving your plan and setting you up.”

The space is inviting, spartan yet cozy, with crate-like barriers and a café ambiance. Up front, a giant stuffed bear – nearly twice the size of an adult – greets customers, and old Starbucks Christmas decorations still frame the large window pane. The store keeps a classic rotary-dial phone (operating off the cellular network) on hand to dial the mobiles they set up, a way to test a plan and phone activations.

Community Phone’s primary aim is to make cellphone use affordable and simple. “Many of our customers are people over 55 who aren’t tech savvy,” and the average customer age is around 58, LaGue said. The other side of the customer base, now a few hundred thousand people, is small businesses and students who aren’t on family plans. The company offers flip phones in the $20 range, but also iPhones and other high-end smartphones with plans as low as $15 for unlimited calls and texting.

The real killer is data costs; LaGue cited an example of couple with a $240 monthly cellular bill. “They had a big data plan but hardly used much of it.” By dialing back the data plan and creating a family account, LaGue was able to cut their costs to less than $40 monthly. There are no contracts with Community Phone – like the company’s housing arrangement, it’s all month to month – and should it disappear tomorrow, the network providers would take over the service and accounts, though costs would likely increase by a small percent.

The company is looking to expand and offer new products, which likely means getting venture funding, LaGue said. For now, it remains on Church Street. “We are actively looking for a new location in Harvard Square, Somerville or possibly Back Bay. We are still trying to find the best way to help the most amount of people, and have several exciting partnerships in the works. No matter what, we’ll be available 24/7 over the phone and online as we always have been for our members in over 30 other states,” he said. Continue reading

How to Recycle Right

5 May

City’s recycling and composting is changing, and doesn’t always work the way you’d think

 

Cambridge recycling director Michael Orr leads a tour of the city’s Zero Waste efforts. (Photo: Kyle Klein)

The Department of Public Works announced last week that paper liquid containers such as milk cartons and juice boxes are no longer acceptable for curbside recycling – the wax and aluminum that coat the inside being extremely hard to separate during processing, according to recycling director Michael Orr.

Most coffee cups are also coated with a light plastic to prevent seepage, and also better off in the trash than in the recycling bin.

Not recycling, it turns out, is a big part of recycling.

“Waste is overbearing, and we’re trying to simplify it,” Orr said. “Much of it is knowledge and being up to date. But if you know about 80 percent, that’s a good start.”

Cambridge recycling goes to a processing facility in Charlestown before being sold.(Photo: Kyle Klein)

Changes in recycling rules results from shifting markets – you have to pay to get it removed and processed, and there are buyers for the processed materials – and changes in technology and capacity. One big ripple came early in 2018 when China, which processed nearly half of U.S. paper waste, stopped taking it, citing contamination.

A more local example: The plant our glass materials went to for processing shut down because the number of bottles dwindled, with blame going to beer manufacturers moving wholesale to cans. Orr says this is a good thing overall, as metal recycles better than glass, but created a short-term problem for the city. Such shifts in the recycling universe can mean an annual municipal expenditure for recycling that varies wildly from as low as $50,000 to a whopping $500,000 or over. Still, the cost of landfill disposal is almost double that, making recycling worthwhile fiscally as well as environmentally.

Recycling – from your kitchen into a reuse such as becoming a carpet or another beer can – is a long, multistep process. Curbside recycling is picked up by Russell, a specially equipped subcontractor based out of Somerville, and taken to the Casella processing facility in Charlestown where “single-stream,” all-in-one bins of recyclables are sorted, processed and readied for shipment to other processing facilities and sale, still primarily in Southeast Asia.

Throw it out

High contamination (such as enough of those waxy liners in milk cartons mixed in with papers) can render a bulk shipment low quality or, worse, cause it to be rejected, meaning it comes back. That can cost tens of thousands of dollars, Orr says. (A few things to note: Pizza boxes, which used to be considered contaminated if they had grease stains, are now accepted and considered highly desirable as long as the wax paper and cheesy residue is removed. Clothing hangers, no matter what material, are are not accepted curbside. Most to-go food containers are a no-go, except plastics, when cleaned. “We always talk about plastic being bad, but in this case,” Orr said, “it’s more preferable.”)

If you’re uncertain what to put curbside for recycling, the city has a website (and a “Zero Waste Cambridge” app for Android and iPhone) that lets you simply plug in what it is you want to get rid of and it tells you how to do it (including divertables such as electronics and clothing). 

The bottom line, when in doubt: Throw it out. You may be creating a bigger savings overall, even if your ecological heartstrings say otherwise.

More composting

Curbside composting – technically a waste process, not composting, because the food and organic waste doesn’t go to the countryside to decay into organic fertilized soil, but to a Waste Management processing plant in Charlestown to become high-energy soil pellets – began as a test in 2014 with 5,200 households of buildings of 12 units or less. In April 2018 it went to 25,000 households of Cambridge’s more than 44,000. It received approval and funding recently from the City Council to roll out citywide in September to the full 33,000 households participating in municipal waste removal (the other households do it themselves or use another service), and the council has asked for the program to go to small businesses and nonprofits this year also. 

The city provides residents with biodegradable compost bags, kitchen sink bins and secure outside containers that are designed to be raccoon proof, and curbside composting has helped reduce landfill waste by 7.3 percent in a year, Orr said.

Paper towels, napkins and tissues can be added to composting food waste, but only if dirtied by water or food waste. Mopping up animal vomit or tossing in materials with mucus, blood or any other bodily fluid introduces pathogens and contaminates the stream.

Things can, mind you, get a little rich on the nose anyway during the dog days of summer, but it’s all for the bigger good.

Given the cost of landfill ($100 per ton) versus recycling ($70) and composting ($60), the city runs a “Zero Waste” program with goals of landfill reduction from a 2008 benchmark of 22.8 pounds per household per week by 30 percent in 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. Currently the city is at 16.36 pounds per family per week.

Down in the Weeds in 02138

1 May

Proposed pot seller has an occupied address: Stereo Jack’s Records, in business for 37 years

 

Stereo Jack’s, at 1686 Massachusetts Ave., has been targeted for replacement by a seller of recreational marijuana. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The owners of a proposed pot shop called Budega did community outreach this week to potential neighbors of the business at 1686 Massachusetts Ave., an address occupied by Stereo Jack’s Records.

“Someone has applied for a license,” according to person answering the phone at Stereo Jack’s, “but we have no plans to close.”

At 37 years old and still run by founder Jack Woker, Stereo Jack’s is one of the longest-running retail stores along the corridor linking Harvard and Porter squares. Budega has begun an application process, but zoning for recreational cannabis has yet to be approved by the city. Arish Halani, the company’s chief operating officer, said opening the shop would take at least a year.

Stereo Jack’s owner Jack Woker in a video made last year by Will Marsh in collaboration with Newton North TV. Click through to watch the video.

The pending law and city officials both favor economic empowerment applicants – basically, people of color who were targeted disproportionately by police and courts during the war on drugs – and Budega’s letter leads with the information that it is a “women-, minority- and family-owned business.” It is signed by company president Sareena Halani and assures residents that it is “different than the big corporations currently in the cannabis space,” and wished to “work together to create a safe and secure dispensary.”

The letter also says to direct questions, comments and concerns to “me,” though the “me” is Arish Halani, not Sareena Halani.

The Halanis are brother and sister, South Boston residents whose parents live in Florida and have run jewelry stores and fast food eateries, Arish Halani said. He is a recent graduate of Babson College who works in commercial banking and co-owns a tax prep service in Chicago; his sister will graduate Northeastern this spring.

They plan to make a formal community presentation May 9 at Lesley University, 1815 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square, with their father, Sohail Halani, and walk residents through the timeline for opening and other details about the shop, Arish Halani said.

Their first attempt at selling marijuana as Omnicann was in East Boston, but the application was denied by the city, Arish Halani confirmed. Now Budega faces a competing license for recreational marijuana sales for the empty space at 1908 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square, formerly a Chinese restaurant called Wok N’ Roll. The locations are less than a half-mile apart.

Arish Halani said his company has signed a letter of intent with Crete Realty Trust, landlord of the Stereo Jack’s property.

“There’s a rumor out there that says Stereo Jack is planning to retire, and that is complete and utter bullshit,” said the person answering the phone at the vinyl shop. Asked who was speaking, the voice said, “Why, I’m Stereo Jack.”

Division in Cambridge Discussed

24 Mar

Diverse hiring in tech, ending school tracking, taxation called ways to close ‘Growing Divides’

 

Sarah Gallop of MIT and the Kendall Square Association speaks at “Growing Divides in Cambridge: A Tale of 2.0 Cities” on Thursday. With her are panelists Chuck Collins and Damon Smith. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The experts at Thursday’s talk on “Growing Divides in Cambridge: A Tale of 2.0 Cities” came with suggestions and progress reports on handling the city’s widening socioeconomic chasm.

As part of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s “Conversations on the Edge” series and moderated by Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, the panel included Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies think tank in Washington, D.C.; Sarah Gallop, co-director of the MIT Office of Government and Community Relations; and Damon Smith, the principal of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

Smith pointed to work on the “Level Up” program, now two years in to eradicating a structure that put students on two tracks through high school, only one headed for college, that was separated largely by family income and race. “It’s been difficult,” he said, in a city that can be most “progressive when looking outward,” but an education that was the same for every student was his offering as a solution for keeping Cambridge a united community.

Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, moderates the panel at the Cambridge Public Library’s Central Square branch Thursday. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Gallop spoke as a co-founder of the Kendall Square Association, which represents hundreds of businesses in a variety of industries. Building diversity and equity into business models is demanded by young employees as part of their working environment, she said, and will be “part of the success equation.”

Collins had the most potentially controversial part of a solution for the “global city phenomenon supercharging … four decades of extreme inequality” in places such as New York, San Francisco and Boston: a luxury real estate surtax. Kicking in on property transfers of more than $2 million, it could produce $350 million annually in Boston that would be earmarked for building affordable housing. (Boston is also looking at a “flipping tax” on property resold within two years of purchase.)

Each could help Cambridge, a “prosperous city with more jobs than people” where 15 percent of the city lived below the poverty level and “one in six children are poor,” Pradhan said – the “Tale of Two Cities” from the event title.

The “Conversations on the Edge” series was initiated by CCAE staff and board members in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to talk about issues that had no “clear answers” and engage the community. Thursday’s event drew a diverse crowd to the Cambridge Public Library’s Central Square branch. Though the event was sold out in advance, more than half of the 120 seats were empty –possibility the result of sharing a night with the fourth installment of the city’s Cambridge Digs Deep diversity series, taking place at the same time at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High school.

Get on the Bus

28 Feb

Proposals to change four Cambridge bus lines draw concern, little enthusiasm, at a hearing

 

The prospect of longer walk times to some bus stops and longer waits at others raised eyebrows Tuesday at a “Better Bus Project” hearing with the City Council’s Transportation and Public Utilities Committee, but residents’ ability to alter MBTA plans seemed limited.

Proposed Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority changes to some bus lines were “a real concern” that held “academic implications” for children who rely on the buses, councillor Alanna Mallon said, and other councillors had other concerns, such as Dennis Carlone’s note of still unmet needs for more robust public transportation in business districts such as Kendall Square and around the Alewife T station.

State officials plan to roll out the changes Sept. 1.

As presented to the committee Tuesday at City Hall by Tegin Teich, a transportation planner with the city’s Community Development Department, Cambridge bus lines will see the removal of two Harvard Square loop stops on the Route 1 bus (down Massachusetts Avenue to Dudley Square in Boston); more Kendall Square and less University Park on the Route 64 bus(Central Square to Oak Square in Brighton), creating an all-day link between Allston-Brighton and Kendall Square along Main Street; a combining of the 70 and 70A buses to Waltham; and changes to lines between Harvard Square and Belmont that would run the 72 line to Aberdeen Avenue only at peak hours and shift 75 buses from Fresh Pond Parkway to Huron Avenue all weekdays and Saturdays. Continue reading

Old Pop

24 Feb

Rule about soda vending machines in schools can bend for vintage item that just popped up

 

A vintage Pepsi machine is on display after being found at the Maria L. Baldwin School. (Photo: Tom Meek)

As winter set in last year, parent Christopher Lim made an unexpected discovery among the custodial tools and snow removal equipment at The Maria L. Baldwin School: a vintage Pepsi vending machine.

The inert machine is on display outside administrator offices, sparking awe from passers-by who marvel at the mechanical simplicity, time-tested craftsmanship and classic Pepsi scripture. The irony of its discovery and current station: soft drink vending machines aren’t allowed in Cambridge Public Schools.

At first, the machine was thought to date back to World War II, but close examination of an attached distributor plate shows a 1954 patent date – which doesn’t preclude it from being older, but makes the earlier estimate less likely.

The vintage machine bears a message that also feels out of date in a Cambridge elementary school. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The machine probably arrived at the Agassiz neighborhood school by the hand of a custodian who retired more than a decade ago. Joseph “Buddy” Signorelli, assistant principal John Roderick said, “liked to drive around in his pickup truck and pick things up. There’s an old oval glass table out there too.” (Attempts to reach Signorelli for comment were unsuccessful.) 

The storage locker where it was discovered, while part of the school’s main structure, is accessible only from the outside, as it houses seasonal equipment and snow melting agents – likely helping the Pepsi machine remain hidden for at least a decade. For safety reasons, Roderick said, the machine has been taped shut.

Being stashed in storage with snow removal equipment helped hide the machine for more than a decade. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Lim had thought to sell the machine to benefit Baldwin Blooms, an annual fundraiser run by parents and friends to raise money for school trips. As is, the machine could fetch a couple of hundred dollars, maybe even crest a grand – but refurbished and working, it could be worth as much as $10,000. As of now it still sits in the school hallway, a nod to the past and a curio. “How much did a soda cost back then?” a curious elementary schooler asked. “Probably a nickel,” an accompanying adult replied. “Wow,” the child said.

Perhaps the machine might be good for remedial math problems and simple economic principles – such as inflation and cost of living increases.

Crema Revived

15 Feb

Revival coffee shops, in Alewife and Davis, have that sweet hint of Crema Cafe origins

 

Liza Shirazi and Steve “Nookie” Postal have brought Revival coffee shops to Alewife and Davis Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Though Revival doesn’t have the same 02138 address of Crema Cafe, fans of the defunct Harvard Square coffee shop will enjoy spacious and attractive locations on CambridgePark Drive by the Alewife red line T station and a brand-spanking-new locale on Elm Street where the road funnels into Somerville’s Davis Square.

The folks behind Revival, Liza Shirazi and Steve “Nookie” Postal, met in 2012. Shirazi was a co-owner with Marley Brush, whose father Tom owns Flat Patties and Felipe’s Taqueria; in 2016, Postal was brought in to help run the popular eatery as Marley stepped away from the business. Then came the December 2017 sale of the historic Brattle Building where Crema was located, to North Carolina-based Asana Partners for a whopping $108 million. Shirazi and Postal, uncertain what the new lease rates would be, had already begun planning what would become the Revival Alewife location. Ultimately the rent hike forced Crema out; Asana is replacing it with New York-based coffee chain Bluestone Lane.

The Revival in Davis Square opened at the new year. (Photo: Tom Meek)

But the name “Revival” is coincidence, Shirazi said. “We didn’t know how Crema was going to go,” she said. “We came up with the name when thinking about space and community.”

The Alewife location is in the first level of an office building amid a spare and stark swath of generic corporate buildings. “It was about bringing culture and life back into a place,” Shirazi said. “Plus, coffee and food do provide energy.”

The Alewife Revival opened in June; its Elm Street sister opened just after the New Year. Neither is open as late as Crema – until 5 p.m. weekdays and 3 p.m. weekends in Alewife, and to 7 p.m. at Davis Square after a starter closing of 3 p.m. as the cafe settles in.

The interiors of the Revivals at Davis Square (top) and Alewife. (Photos: Tom Meek)

They share a menu, with breakfast served all day and a basic but creative lunch menu with a few nods to the old Harvard Square location – namely the Crema Grilled Chicken sandwich with avocado and cotija, a cheese and corn spread. There’s also an ample selection of salads, quiche, made-on-site pastries as well as a kimchi bowl and the pastrami-based “Fake News” sandwich.

The Alewife space, which Shirazi called “family friendly,” boasts a vast parking lot open to customers on weekends (during the week it’s used by tenants’ employees) and has direct access to the bike path extension from Alewife to Belmont. Shirazi commutes from Lexington, where she has a husband also in the food industry and a 2- and a 4-year-old. Postal is a longtime Porter Square resident who owns and runs the Commonwealth restaurant and market in Kendall Square.

The owners have been exploring food and beverage service options outside the traditional long-term leased storefront format: In addition to the Revivals, they run a food and coffee kiosk at One Post Office Square, in downtown Boston. At CambridgePark Drive there is another floor- level space that they plan to operate as a community beer hall called Mothership.