Interview: Lucy R. Valena, founder of Voltage Coffee & Art
For some of us, cafes are sacred places given the amount of time we spend in them. As of a few years ago, I no longer have the appetite for the ubiquitous coffee chains and franchises; local cafes have much more character. You know you’ve hit gold when you find a place that has phenomenal coffee, free Wi-Fi, ample power outlets and a great atmosphere.
This past week, we caught up with Lucy R. Valena, founder of one of my favorite cafes in Cambridge, Voltage Coffee & Art, to talk about coffee, art and what the future holds.
1. Where did the idea of mixing coffee and art come from?
Coffee and art are a natural pair, and I have always loved the idea of an ampersand concept: something that fuses two ideas together and explores the relationship between those things. It’s something that I’ve always been fascinated by- in my artwork and everything else.
2. I read that you didn’t initially set out to open a cafe after graduating from university. Could you share a bit about that story and what drove you to pursue this particular dream?
I graduated from Hampshire College with a degree in studio art in Spring of 2007. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my shiny new degree- all I knew was that I had to go to Seattle first to make sure it wasn’t the perfect place for me. My parents met and married each other in Seattle, and I was born there although I grew up in New Hampshire; I had always felt that there was something important for me in Seattle, and I was just itching to find out what it was. As it turned out, it was espresso. On my first day in there, I stepped into a coffeehouse and the barista poured me a latte with a beautiful rosetta on it, which I had never seen before. I remember smiling to myself and thinking, “I’m not leaving this town until I learn how to do that”, and I didn’t. It took about 4 months.
During my time in Seattle, all I could think about was how much coffee people were drinking, and also how many wonderful projects were happening. I kept thinking about Boston, and how much I would love to see that kind of spark injected into the culture here. So, when I moved back to the East Coast, I decided to launch an espresso catering service in hopes that it would serve as a bridge to a brick and mortar location.
3. The fact that Voltage’s showcasing of artwork has a greater good element to it, giving exposure to local artists, is wonderful. And the flip-side of that of course is that it’s a great way to get repeat-customers. Was that always your plan for Voltage? And have you found that customers show interest in purchasing the art?
Our goal in Voltage is not only to serve awesome coffee, but to provide something like a springboard for young artists in the area. In Boston, there are plenty of places with art on the walls, but the work often isn’t well curated or displayed- it almost feels like an afterthought. There are also plenty of high brow, white box galleries in town, but that world is a difficult one to break into. I’ve found that our commitment to young artists has been very mutually beneficial because of the incredible amount of energy it continually creates within the space.
Our curator, Anna Schindelar, is always pounding the pavement and finding new artists, so we are able to change out the art shows every six weeks. On top of that we usually have some kooky project we’re working on, an unusual object displayed on the counter, or some new recipe- there’s rarely a shortage of news and shenanigans. I think the energy within the space is what makes people come back every day, and we definitely have sold a good amount of art to Voltage regulars and art collectors alike.
4. What are the biggest hurdles that you had to overcome to get to where you are today?
When I first launched Voltage as an espresso catering service, I was 23 and truly had no idea what business meant. I didn’t know anything about taxes, cash flow, accounting, licensing, or really any of the information I thought I needed to know in order to start a business. However, I remember realizing one day that I had something that a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs have trouble acquiring: the knowledge of how to build things from scratch. I am a sculptor, and have learned from years of making things that essentially anything can be constructed- once you start making plans, all it takes is time.
5. Everyone that I’ve visited Voltage with has commented that the coffee is phenomenal. Could you share a bit about how you came up with the menu items as well as what goes into your coffee-making process…other than love!
All of the recipes for the Voltage Standards- the exotic flavored lattes and hot chocolates, were developed in my kitchen the summer before the catering service launched, and tested over the next year by customers. During that initial development stage, it was a somewhat random process- I would literally just experiment making different ingredients into syrup and trying out different fresh infusions. And yes, it was definitely a labor of love.
6. I get the sense that the staff’s hearts are in the work, to paraphrase Carnegie; they clearly love working with each other and making coffee. How would you say that that kind of harmony comes about?
We have been very lucky, but this place has also been built on a very close-knit foundation. My second in command, Zoë McDonnell, is my best friend. We had adjoining studio spaces our senior year at Hampshire, and have a really good working relationship. She and I went our separate ways after graduation, but when I decided to open the shop, I called her up. She was living in California at the time, and I essentially called and asked her when she was going to move back here so we could make some cool stuff happen. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the magic of that conversation- as I recall, she sort of paused for a minute, and then said, “Well, it might take me a couple of months to get my stuff together, but… okay. I’ll be there soon.”
My staff has truly become a family- we hang out quite a bit outside of the shop and have a great time together. We all help each other out, and I honestly just have so much love in my heart for all of them. The extended Voltage family is becoming such a cool network of awesome people, and what else could I possibly ask for in this world than to be building things alongside wonderful people?
7. What’s next for Voltage?
There are some seriously exciting projects in the works, but I can’t quite reveal them yet. Let’s just say that the next Voltage will be a different kind of business, not a coffeehouse & gallery, but another ampersand storefront that links a different natural pair and elevates the relationship between those things to a new level. Vague, I know, but I will give you a hint: I just put in my application to attend pastry school in the Fall.
Voltage is located on Third Street in Cambridge, MA and is open weekdays 7AM to 7PM and on Saturdays 9AM to 7PM.