Tagged: cambridge

Community Supported Arts Harvest

This summer, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to teach a business basics class for a group of artists participating in a new way to create and sell artwork, Community Supported Arts. Like its inspiration, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), CSArts is a way for producers to get paid in advance for their work, and a way for consumers to get a bounty of locally-produced original artwork.  Last week, I attended the Harvest Party and picked up my bag of nine works of art.

Here’s a rundown. Be sure to visit each artist’s site for more information, and in some cases, behind-the-scenes looks at the production process. Last I heard there were just a handful of CSArt shares still available for purchase.

CSArt by Laura Quincy Jones, Emily Garfield, Robert Smyth and Jude Griffin

Clockwise from top left, a hand-washed pen-and-ink housescape by Laura Quincy Jones, a map of an imaginary place by Emily Garfield, a bird print on wood by Jude Griffin, and a letterpress broadside of a poem written and set by Robert Smyth.

Hajosy+Astolfi+deRosas

An artists’ book by Cristina Hajosy, an abstract watercolor painting by Shannon Astolfi, and a plate with a hand-painted bird (after Audubon) by Eileen DeRosas.

Song+Mueller

Origami by Sok Song and a porcelain bottle by Maeve Mueller.

I have good reason to be biased, but I really think this is a fantastic program for the artists and also for the buyers. For less than I’ve often paid for a single photograph (my usual media of collection), I now have nine new works of art in several media I’ve never collected before. Aside from their origin, there’s no clear theme uniting them, but there are lots of interesting groupings and connections to be made for the inspired home curator. I know the artists better than the average buyer, but there’s enough information in the packaging and on the artists’ sites for a novice collector to learn about each piece’s creation and inspiration.

Although each artist made 50 pieces for this program, most of them have some element of individuality and all are signed and numbered. For example, each of Sok Song’s pieces has the same form, but is made of a different paper. You can see all 50 of Shannon Astolfi’s paintings on her website, and Maeve Mueller encourages her buyers to join an online community to see where the other bottles ended up.  I hope more share buyers will post photos of their artwork so I can see more of the other 49 variations. In the event of a reunion, each of Emily Garfield’s map paintings links up with the next to form a single, very long, map.

It may be hard for some to buy art in advance and pretty much sight unseen, but at this price and with this number of works, I think most would be happy with a few pieces they love, and a few they can give as gifts. Of course part of the point is that CSArt share buyers will form a connection with one or more of the artists and buy more (and more expensive) work from them in the future. I know I’ll be keeping an eye on some of these artists, and not just to see if they were listening in business class.

Now you can buy art made in Massachusetts from a CSA

There’s a new concept in buying art based on the tried and true Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model used by farms and other food producers. Community Supported Art means you pay in advance for a share and on “harvest day” you pick up a box of artwork. Like the farm-based CSA, with CSArt, you never know quite what you’ll get until you pick it up, and the artists benefit like the farmers do, with cashflow during the time they have to invest in making the art.

Supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and others, CSArt is administered by the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Nine local artists are selected each year and tasked with producing an edition of 50 pieces for the program. Each share gets one work from each artist. This year the artists are:

I’m very lucky to be involved in the project as the teacher of a short business curriculum for artists. As such, I stress the importance of getting paid in advance whenever possible, and that’s just what a CSA program allows them to do. Here’s a clip from 2012 on the program:

CCAE CS ART from Cambridge Center for Adult Ed on Vimeo.

I urge you to check out the artists’ sites and the CSArt program in general. The CSA vegetable box usually includes something new that you don’t know what to do with but soon learn to love, I expect that a box of community supported art might just have the same delightful benefit.

Last I checked, shares were still available.

When a bus stop stops being a bus stop

You may remember back in June when I reported that the MBTA was eliminating a couple of stops on the number 1 bus line, I wondered what would happen to the space freed up. Well, I’ve been watching those stops and seen no changes. Still no parking, still marked off, still signed as bus stops.

Sign's still there Street's still marked

Until last night, when I was riding the 1 bus back from Boston and asked the driver to let me off at one of those stops. The driver – operator 67743 – told me it wasn’t a stop anymore. I pointed out that I could see the bus stop sign and even a person waiting at that stop to get on.  Since Yom Kippur was nigh, she made an exception for us.

So, MBTA or Cambridge or whoever, what’s the deal? How are passengers who are not always-internet-connected otaku like myself supposed to know this change is coming up and that it has finally actually happened? (The stop is still shown on the interactive route map on mbta.com justsayin) And, since service to that stop has in fact stopped, why is the sign still up and what’s the plan for repurposing that real estate?

Here’s what I wrote almost three months ago, emphasis added.

…what will happen to the former bus stops? Will more (metered?) parking be created? Bike parking? Ghost stops where parking is prohibited but buses never stop? Pocket parks? Time will tell. 

This is not the way I like to be right. I’d say from the position of the fire hydrant that no more than one parking spot on the Clinton Street side could be created, but that would be something. Adding bike parking or something else more interesting would be something too. Not even bothering with a sign saying that the stop is no longer a stop, that’s the worst kind of business as usual around here.

Two trucks make sweet BBQ love and settle down in Kendall square

It’s like when you see a band make it big and tell all your friends about when you saw them at some dive back in the day. Some of my favorite food trucks are spawning brick and mortar establishments. Clover already has 3 or 4 falafel-dispensing locations, Mei Mei is planning a spot in Audobon Circle, and tonight, I popped in at Bon Me’s soft opening at 1 Kendall Square.

The space seems to have been carved, perhaps literally, out of the lobby of the building that houses The Friendly Toast and West Bridge above the tomb of Think Tank, whose wifi, oddly, was still on. Four tables, eight chairs, two bars with four stools each – definitely more seating than the trucks. Bon Me blue dominates one wall and the rest of the place is chrome, slate and dark wood. The menu – and prices – look just about the same as the trucks’ perhaps with an occasional special or dessert.

I got the BBQ pork sandwich because under the benchmark rule, you have to stick with a staple, a classic, or at least something you’ve had before to properly evaluate a new place.  In honor of absent truckonaut B, I had some Thai basil lemonade, and to take back to professor M, some chocolate rice pudding to go.

No surprises, and that’s a good thing.  Maybe a little service glitch with the ticket printer down, but that’s to be expected in the first few days, that’s what a soft opening is for, after all.  The BBQ pork was zesty, the bread crusty, the carrots crunchy, the pate livery, the mayo spicy, the cilantro uppity, everything in its place and as it should be, dare I say it maybe a tiny bit better than at the truck.  This is a $6 sandwich, $8 if you somehow think you need “extra meat,” and really, I love this stuff, but I’m pretty sure you do not need extra meat.  Same price as at the truck, and you get a roof over your head and music, too.

What of this trend?  Will the trucks lose their edge when they go all conventional with seats and stuff? I’m doubtful, at least if they keep their eyes on the prize.  A small restaurant with a small menu isn’t so different from a truck, and I’m optimistic that great trucks like Bon Me and Mei Mei will be able to stay focused and creative.  All that time working out of a truck has kept them close to their customers and solidified their operational discipline, I just hope the cost structure holds up.  For once, I’m impressed with a line extension.

Meat on sticks in an urban alley at Moksa

Moksa, Cambridge’s newish “Pan-Asian Izakaya” is a welcome freshening of the Mass Ave Asian food scene. As the Izayaka label suggests, Moksa takes the drinks seriously – they have cocktails for each sign of the Chinese zodiac and each of the elements (classical four, not scientific 118) – but the food is no slouch either.

Weather permitting, I recommend the patio, a nice brick alley adjacent to the Central Square Theater.  Recently, I enjoyed a half bottle of Henri Bourgeois Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre.

Moksa’s food menu is a riotous array of small plates, many inspired by street food, others spinning off from classic dum sum, rice dishes and roti.  Bring lots of friends so you can try as many as possible.  I especially enjoy the Twice-Cooked Green Beans with onions and soybeans, both whole and sauced.  The beans are somehow still just crisp enough to the bite after two cookings.

Other notable dishes include the possibly hyperbolic Fried Rice with Twenty Vegetables, the sushiesque Tuna Poke with Avocado and Hearts of Palm, the border-blurring Popcorn Shrimp Roti, and an array of grilled meats on sticks, including chicken hearts, beef tongue, and smoked duck breast.  The menu changes often, so some of these might be gone for now or forever, but I’m sure something just as good will take their places

Can snooty waiters save independent cafes from iPads and city planners?

I went to check out the newish Dwelltime Coffeebar and Bakeshop in the newly-hopping Broadway zone of mid-Cambridge.  Whilst enjoying an americano, smooth and served with a glass of water like they do in civilized nations, and a whole wheat bacon scallion scone, not too large, crisp and savory, all for a bit more than $5, I took notice of two notices.

First, the are going to turn off their wifi during lunch hours to reduce, well, dwell time, and to avoid becoming a co-working space.  Second, they have a petition going to get the Peoples’ Republic City of Cambridge to allow them more than 20 seats, a number to which they are limited because they have no off-street parking.   Are these things related?

Item 2, crap anti-business elitist NIMBY zoning

There’s a bus stop out front and the place is 4 blocks from the red line, but somehow the city thinks that the business needs to provide parking.  And the penalty for not providing parking is to be restricted to perhaps half the seating capacity it could serve.  Certainly the last thing I want in my precious Cambridge neighborhood is a cafe full of people.  Ugh, the thought of it.  I’m sure the only reason the neighbors tolerate that school across the street, teeming with germy children and no doubt swamped with SUVs at dropoff and pickup times, is some kind of grandfathering.  Awesome pro-business stance there, Cambridge.  An empty storefront across the street from a school is a much better idea.

Item 1, people who sit in a cafe all day

Before Dwelltime opened, I remember hearing a piece on the radio in which the owner talked about reducing the number of electrical outlets to prevent people from setting up camp all day.  I laughed.  Maybe that will slow down some people with crummy computers, but you can easily go four hours on a modern laptop, all day with an iPad, and as long as your supply holds out with an actual book.  So now they’re throttling wifi to keep people moving?  Again, that’ll hold off some people, but it won’t hold off technological progress.  Tablets, phones and hotspot devices let you skip the cafe’s wifi, as I am doing right now with a personal hotspot from my phone connecting me to a 4G data network.

It’s a social, behavioral problem, and restricting the tech, even if it could really work, won’t do the job.  High unemployment, scads of students, cheap technology, and a sense of entitlement will keep people camping out all day at cafes.

So, what to do?

Obviously the need to turn over the tables faster is exacerbated by having fewer tables than you might “naturally” have in the space.  At the same time, having people move through quicker would mean parking spaces would also turn over faster. Most of the parking nearby is resident or metered with a two hour limit.  If metered parking really worked, it would probably cut back a little on the all-day cafe types, but I’m guessing many of them are walking or taking transit.  I’ll leave the zoning thing alone for now except to say that the city needs to price street parking appropriately and let the cafe live or die on its own merits. For the all-day cafe dwellers, I suggest…

A modest proposal: waiters

People sit in cafes all day because they can.  Passive-aggressive moves like restricting power outlets and internet won’t cut it.  You need to make those people pay up or move on, and I think table service is the way to do it.  If I get a single coffee at the counter and hunker down for six hours, nobody’s coming over and asking me to buy more stuff to earn the right to stay or telling me that another party is coming in and they need the table.  But that’s exactly what waiters do in restaurants.  The better ones are less obviously obnoxious about it, but they all do it. “Anything else for you sir?”  Subtly-yet-pointedly leaving the bill.  You know the drill.

They way I see it, a skilled waiter or two could increase the average revenue per seat per hour and keep the malingerers moving along.  Plus, despite the best efforts of city planners, it would create another job, and it would make the cafe a bit safer by having another set of eyes on the floor.

Your mileage may vary, but if you’re car-free in the area, you should drop by Dwelltime and sign their petition.

Fear of Falafel

Are you afraid of falafel?  Well, if you is or if you ain’t, I direct your attention to a bout of the limeduck national sport, overthinking, going on over at the Clover Food Lab (and trucks), where they sell a sandwich called “chickpea fritter” that might actually be… falafel.

There doesn’t seem to be much debate that the chickpea fritter sandwich is in fact falafel.  I can also say that it seems quite popular and is in my opinion, a delicious lunch and  quite satisfying for $5, too.  So…  why not just call it falafel?  Clover opened that can of worms themselves in a blog post in February, which I’ll quote most of here:

Yesterday at MIT one of our customers, Nittin, was giving us a hard time about the chickpea fritter. “Why don’t you just call it falafel,” he was saying. “It’s just like the falafel I’ve had in the Middle East.” It’s not the first time we’ve gotten this comment. I think Nittin felt like calling it a chickpea fritter made it seem gourmet, or like we were trying to rename something that already exists.

I was telling him (Ayr and Rolando, let me know if I have this right) the reason we don’t call it falafel is pretty simple. We don’t want to alienate anyone with our food, and a word like falafel might make someone walk away at first glance. We don’t want the only people who eat our food to be those who know what falafel is. Calling it a chickpea fritter almost forces a discussion between you and the person taking your order.

You’re operating a food truck outside of MIT (and a restaurant in Harvard square, plus more trucks in Boston) and are worried that people won’t know about falafel?  I’ve got to say, this just doesn’t hold water for me.  Sure, Clover is pretty plain-spoken about their food, but would it hurt anybody to put one more word on the menu board? You can look up the nutritional content of Clover’s fritters and find mention of tahini and hummus and even Israeli salad, but a strange absence of the word falafel.

Two of my friends had identical but oddly opposite darker interpretations, wondering if Clover were somehow anti-arab or anti-israeli.  I’m certainly not going to take sides on the falafel origin debate, and I don’t buy this unpleasant take on Clover’s choice of words either.  So what gives?  Why is Clover so defensive about the issue on their blog?

I’ve got a funny story to add.  On my first visit to the Clover truck was back in August, before garbanzogate, I opted for the BBQ Seitan sandwich because I didn’t know what a chickpea fritter was.  That’s right, I chose seitan, a food whose actual composition I cannot describe or explain [it’s wheat gluten, dude, also known as mock duck, go figure] but one that I had eaten before, over the chickpea fritter which I did not recognize as familiar falafel.  Also on the menu board that day were tabbouleh and quinoa, make of that what you will.  So I guess food ignorance can go both ways, but the last thing you want at a food truck’s lunch line is to have to take time to discuss the menu with your order taker.

The way I see it, Clover has three choices on this:

  1. Admit a mistake, change it, move on.
  2. Outgeek us all by pointing out that some falafel is made with fava beans, so by calling theirs chickpea fritters, they’re being more precise and descriptive and catering to those who wish to avoid fava beans in their diets.
  3. Test it.  Change the menu item to falafel for a day, a week, even an hour, and compare it to a comparable time period.  You either sell fewer sandwiches or you don’t.

So what’s it going to be?  Until something changes (and I’m not holding my breath) I encourage both of my loyal readers to visit your nearest Clover truck and order the falafel.  It’s delicious.

Sliding down the hierarchy of thneeds at Webinno26

Well, here’s one thing that doesn’t seem to be in evidence in Sicily: a burbling startup scene.  I dropped in at Web Innovators 26 (it seems only yesterday I was at Webinno18) at the Royal Sonesta to check out the demos and pitches.  As usual, there were some “main dishes” that got longer demo spots and some “sides” that got 15 seconds.  All had tables and the big ballroom was packed.

Maybe it’s the recessionary times, but I noted that the companies on offer seemed to cluster around the more basic of human needs.  Not to say they weren’t smart and sophisticated ideas.  Here’s a rundown, and then I’ll get to the strange underwear theme that ran through the evening like an elastic waistband.

Birchbox, a “new concept in beauty retail” that sounds just a little bit like a fancy coffin.

Chargify, a recurring billing service for serial entrepreneurs who have better things to do than worry about dunning and fraud.

DoInk, a community of “artists, animators and doodlers” reusing one another’s artwork to create animations and drawings.  they ran away with the audience choice award by a wide margin, and many tweets reminded people to “show this to the kids.”

JitterJam, some “web-based social marketing software

manpacks, just what it sounds like, automated underwear delivery for “busy men”

Milabra, a “Visual Intelligence Platform” that serves up ads based on the color and content of a website’s imagery. Smart MIT guys, cool technology, kinda sluggish demo.

RelayRides, like Zipcar but with your car. Or maybe like Circle Lending but with your car. I like the idea that they allow more driving with the existing fleet of cars.

Trustmarker, a provider of “digital trustmark networks” which are, um, those things, you know, like verisign, but your own. I think.

Marketeers have heard endless variants on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the philosophy of selling “medicine, not vitamins”  but I thought this was largely (not entirely!) a refreshingly down to earth bunch of startup ideas.  What’s more basic than entertaining kids, feeling good about how you look, building trust, and getting around town cost-effectively?

But those concepts are as often as not boring or undifferentiated.  And that’s probably why what’s arguably the most absurd of the ideas – manpacks – was the one that everyone, even the other presenters, was taking about.  As the Lorax pointed out, you do not need a thneed, and as I am pointing out, if you’re too busy to pull together some underwear, you need to re-think your business.  But the image of busy (or more likely, lazy) men ordering a tailored internet subscription to their, um, unmentionables, has a strange appeal.

Manpacks is the youngest of the webinno companies – the only one founded in 2010 – and it’s already got a bunch of press.  I have no idea if it has or deserves any customers.  Maybe it’s just a brilliant publicity stunt for some other business, but it helps us ask two good questions…

1. does your business actually solve a real problem?

2. have you built a story around it that would make anybody care?

The Mayor of Central Nowhere

A lot of the people who said that microblogging or Twitter was the Big Thing of 2008 or 2009 are saying that location or Foursquare is the Big Thing of 2010 or beyond.  I don’t know if Foursquare is played yet, or if Twitter already has jumped the shark, but I’m starting to worry that the actual, physical concept of location might be on the way out as businesses evaporate from downtowns, especially in my own Central Square.

Earlier this week, I noted a bit in xconomy singing the praises of Central Square as a new startup hub, singling out a particular office building and featuring a couple of its startuppy tenants.  I’m all for it, having previously noted Beta House and OpenCoffee among others.  Plus, Central is home to Harmonix Music.  Good news, to be sure.

But the day before that article, Hollywood Express closed their Central Square store, adding to a distressing list of businesses vacating Central Square and its environs.  In fact, I was both pleased and saddened to discover an entire blog devoted to the disappearance of businesses along Cambridge’s Massachusetts Avenue.  Compare for example my February 2009 post on the decline of the furniture cluster to Empty Mass Ave’s post on the same topic in February of this year.  Apparently, we’re all in this together.  Empty retail space around Central now includes the long-gone Gap, Pearl Paint, all those furniture stores, the space next to the Central Square Theater, and I’m sure more.

The other good news is that restaurants seem to be thriving even as retail suffers – Rendezvous, Four Burgers, Craigie on Main and Garden at the Cellar are all great –  but I can’t help worry that we need a bit of everything to make a neighborhood that all those fancy startup types will actually want to inhabit.

We can blame the economy for some closures, especially the furniture stores.  We can blame changes in technology and media for the demise of record stores, video stores and maybe even bookstores. We can blame landlords, that’s always popular.  I think we often forget to blame ourselves for not shopping, working and doing business enough in our own neighborhoods and cities.

Three mile desert of Chinese food on Mass Ave around Harvard

I hadn’t really thought much about local Chinese food with an actual Chinatown so close to home, but when Jason asked me to suggest a good Chinese restaurant in Central or Harvard, I realized that I’m living on a boulevard of pretty unimpressive Chinese restaurants stretching for miles!

Let’s start at Harvard and head North first.

Yenching, 1326 Mass Ave.  There are plenty of positive reviews, but I am not impressed.

Changsho, 1712 Mass Ave.  Grand and imperial looking, but not that exciting.  Plus, they slipped slices of ham into their vegetarian eggplant. And it looks like part of a chain now.

Wok n Roll, 1908 Mass Ave. Right in Porter, but never seems to make the list.  Maybe it’s the name.

Qing Dao Garden, 2383 Mass Ave.  We’re most of the way to the Arlington line and finally, an agreeably low-key joint with fresh and interesting dishes.

Back to Harvard now, heading South…

Hong Kong, 1238 Mass Ave.  OK, I get it, it’s a comedy club and they have really big scorpion bowls.  That in itself should disqualify it.  Do not eat here unless already drunk.

New Asia, 1105 Mass Ave.  Meh. But they do deliver!

(note the 600+ house numbers of nothing right through Central square)

Mary Chung, 460 Mass Ave.  Almost Halfway to MIT, we find the other border of the desert.  Mary Chung is an institution for good reason.  I think they have one of the highest food to decor rating ratios (over 3:1) in all of Zagat.  Don’t miss the suan la chow show. (And when a dish has its own wikipedia page that mentions a restaurant, that should speak volumes)

It’s 3.2 miles along Mass Ave – give or take – between Mary Chung and Qing Dao Garden, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s not much to eat Chinese-wise along that strip, which encompasses three of the major squares of Cambridge.  Sort of disgraceful, don’t you think?

Just for yuks, let’s venture past Mary Chung for a bonus round heading towards MIT and swerving on to Main Street a bit.

All Asia, 332 Mass Ave. Known for music not so much for food.

Pu Pu Hot Pot, 907 Main Street. Divey, but I like this place in spite of or maybe because of the name.

Royal East, 792 Main Street.  Fancier than Changsho and with more culinary chops to back it up if you ask me.

I’m sure plenty of differing opinions will surface, but I do want to recognize a place that I’ve omitted because it’s a bit off the beaten track of Mass Ave, but well worth the trip if you’re stuck in the 3.2 mile Chinese Rut: Zoe’s, at 289 Beacon Street, next to Petsi Pies.  I’m not even 100% sure they’re still in operation, but especially given the above, I’m going to make a point to seek them out again soon.