Tag Archives: Harvard Square

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

Wings and Yummy Things

24 Feb

Restaurants arrive on red line as destinations for diners seeking Asian, French, small plates

 

Jae’s Cafe is in Somerville’s Davis Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Along the red line in each of our three northernmost squares, eateries with time-tested roots have popped up within the past month.

Jae’s Cafe is in Somerville’s Davis Square at what was the Korean restaurant Meju. If the name seems familiar, Jae’s was a popular pan-Asian restaurant franchise in Boston and Cambridge in the 1990s and early 2000s. It never officially went away – there’s still a Jae’s in Pittsfield, and owner Jae Chung owns Koreana in Central Square, one of the few places in town to get Korean barbecue at your table. The menu for Jae’s has traditionally been a blend of classic Thai (Pad Thai), Korean (Bibimbap) and sushi staples; on Elm Street locale, the focus is more on Korean. The rebranding comes as no surprise, though the timing is interesting, as Chung had become involved in the ownership of Meju last year after the eatery began to languish. Jae’s will face the same challenges as Meju: a heavy concentration of competition. There are seven other Asian restaurants in the area, including Sugidama Soba & Izakaya, Genki Ya Sushi and two ramen restaurants. It is, however, the only Korean venue.

243 Elm St., Davis Square.

Colette in Porter Square. (Photo: Colette via Facebook)

One T stop down, the French bistro Colette has finally opened in a long-vacant restaurant and lounge spaceon the ground level of the Porter Square Hotel. The eatery, which offers a French cafe-style breakfast as well as Francophile dinner offerings, is operated by Loic Le Garrec and Sandrine Rossi. The duo, natives of France, run sister restaurants over in Boston: Petit Robert Bistro on Columbus Avenue, and Frenchie in the South End. The dinner menu features classic French Onion Soup ($11), Wild Mushroom Vol au Vent (a mushroom-filled flaky pastry for $13), Nicoise Cannelloni Coq au Vin (pasta stuffed with chicken, mushrooms and bacon for $12), Steak Frites ($32) and, aptly, a grilled Porterhouse steak you can sink your teeth into for a eye-popping, but not off-the-charts, $78. The cut is arguably named after Zachariah B. Porter, who ran a hotel and steakhouse across Massachusetts Avenue in the late 19th century, while the restaurant in part is named after the 20th century French writer and performer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.

1924 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square. Continue reading

Banking on Banks

15 Feb

Another bank branch is under construction, East Boston Savings filling former wine shop

 

The former wine shop at 1739 Massachusetts Ave. will become an East Boston Savings Bank branch. (Photo: Google)

Coming shortly to 1739 Massachusetts Ave., formerly the University Wine Shop, is a – wait for it – bank. According to Dan Bloom of Tactical Realty Group, which leased the property, an East Boston Savings Bank branch will open its doors as soon as a remodel is complete.

The loose quarter-mile stretch of Massachusetts Avenue from Linnaean Street to the Porter Square Galleria already has five banks. East Boston Savings Bank will be the sixth.

East Boston Savings Bank, based in Peabody, has more than 40 locations, including one on the other side of Porter Square in North Cambridge at 2172 Massachusetts Ave.

University Wine Shop, seen in July 2017, has moved to 1737 Massachusetts Ave. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The space, owned by a trust managed by Myer Dana and Sons with the neighboring 1741 Massachusetts Ave., had been vacant for more than a year since rents were raised on the previous tenants. The liquor store and Nomad, a jewelry, furniture and gift shop, decided to vacate in August 2017 after decades-long tenancies because of the rent increase – doubling what other businesses along the strip were paying, wine shop owner Paul DeRuzzo told the Cambridge Chronicle. The former Nomad space remains empty and for rent.

University Wine Shop and Nomad relocated yards away, to 1737 and 1771 Massachusetts Ave., respectively.

The notion of a bank popping up when a local business gets bounced due to high rent is nothing new in Cambridge; a Citizens Bank is under construction in Porter Square, where it’s replacing a Potbelly Sandwich Shop, though with seven banks in around 900,000 square feet of retail space, Harvard Square may be the epitome of bank proliferation in Cambridge. Will there be more? You can bank on it. 

Neon Blaze

12 Jan

 

Kensho Technology’s sign over 44 Brattle St., Harvard Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The bidirectional bike lane on Brattle Street has company in controversy since Kensho Technologies, a growing player in the machine learning and analytics market targeting the finance, health care and national security sectors, has alerted residents and visitors to its new digs at 44 Brattle St. by erected a giant, electric blue neon sign – an intensely bright beacon that one passer-by described as an “optical oddity.”

Nowhere else in the historically zoned Harvard Square are there any such stark illuminations. The Kensho moniker stands out even more against the sheer spareness of the glass-encased building it occupies and the wintertime darkness that consumes Brattle Street at night.

The sign went up just over a week ago.

According to Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, it is not in violation of any code or ordinance. “The Kensho sign was reviewed by [Community Development and Inspectional Services] and found to conform with the provisions of the sign code. The City Sports signs on the exterior of the building will be replaced with Kensho signs also,” Sullivan said, referring to the remains of the sporting goods store that closed all of its 26 stores in 2015.

“The other issue,” he pointed out, “is the commission’s lack of jurisdiction over interior features generally.”

The city has lagged in writing and adopting coherent outdoor-lighting laws since invasive light complaints came before the City Council and city planners at least a decade ago; the lack of ability to limit illumination leaking from building interiors has been cited by many as a weakness of the most recent efforts. In September, a despairing councillor said the city would be better off adopting a resident-written law from 2013.

Some are concerned about the precedent set by the tech company’s branding. “Kensho’s new neon window sign points to the need to reconsider standards for both exterior and interior signage in the Harvard Square Conservation District,” said vice mayor Jan Devereux, who believed a study group was in process to review the conservation district’s guidelines.

The lights can be dimmed, Kensho said. But inside its offices, workers seemed literally above any complaints.

“We hadn’t had any such feedback as of yet,” said Bhavesh Dayalji, head of client operations for the company. “We’re happy to be part of revitalizing Harvard Square, as more and more retail spaces are left empty. We’re also one of the largest employers of engineers in the Cambridge community and excited about some of the plans we have for the future that will benefit the wider Cambridge community.”

Most innovation ventures in Cambridge settle in and around Kendall Square, and much of the office space that Kensho now occupies, as Dayalji points out, had been vacant for some time.

One observer in Harvard Square seemed to appreciate what Kensho had installed, calling it “a sign of the times. You’ve gotta keep up.”