When Marvin Mathelier and Beth Santos moved to Egleston Square a few years ago, they took note of the changing nature of the neighborhood and its diversity. The two said they always wanted to open a cafe as a community gathering place, but hadn’t found the right spot until Ula Cafe was up for sale.
The cafe, located in the Brewery complex on Amory Street, has been a staple in the Jamaica Plain community since its opening in 2007, bringing people together for meetings, a cup of coffee, and a sandwich or pastry.
“I’ve always wanted to own a cafe,” said Kelly Fernandes, who has had 10 years of experience in the food industry. “I would go to Ula pretty much every single day. It was like my pit stop.”
Once she found out her favorite cafe was up for sale and she became connected with Santos and Mathelier, “one thing led to another,” and “the three of us got to buying it,” she said.
With three new owners, all of whom live in the JP area, Ula Cafe is in for some changes that will put a spin on its roots as a gathering place for the community.
“We’re not going to do anything crazy,” Fernandes said, adding that the hope is to close down the cafe for a few weeks early next year to remodel the inside and “give the cafe a refresher. It’s definitely due for a good face lift,” she said.
Right now, the cafe is not open for indoor seating.
“We want to make sure we have all of our ducks in a row,” Mathelier said, and “make sure we’re not rushing things.” There are 25 seats available outside on the cafe’s patio.
Fernandes now serves as the Executive Chef for the cafe, and has some plans up her sleeve for creating delicious, nutritious, locally sourced food for the neighborhood.
She said that in the kitchen, she plans on keeping “some of the classic stuff,” but she also does not want to stick to just one type of cuisine. The three owners have roots in Haiti, Cape Verde, and Portugal, so she hopes to introduce foods from those countries as well as others.
She hopes to keep a similar collection of menu items to what Ula used to offer, such as sandwiches, salads, small plates, and pastries.
Fernandes said that she will be partnering with a lot more local providers for food items, such as Allandale Farm for produce, and hopes to introduce a seasonal menu to ensure that all ingredients are as fresh as possible. she added that she hopes to be using local milk in coffee and baked goods by the end of this summer.
Fernandes also wants to “elevate the pastry programs,” and offer things like babkas and donuts on the weekends, as well as possibly croissants if she can get the right equipment.
Santos added that the goal is to have a “multicultural menu because our community is so multicultural.”
Santos also said that “Ula was started to gather people together, to create that home for people,” and she said the new owners really want to build on that mission, whether it be bringing together parents with kids, an elderly person, a low income individual, or someone moving into the new condos down the street, she said everyone is welcome.
“We want to see gallery nights and showing off musicians,” she said, as well as have open mic nights and “have a place where people come together for food, yes, but also they feel like they’re family when they’re there.”
Mathelier said that some of these changes to the cafe will be rolled out slowly, but the trio is making efforts to engage with the community and get their feedback about what they would like to see for the space..
The cafe just held its first community event, a conversation with local organization Call It Out, for Juneteenth this past Saturday.
“To me, I felt like it was a huge success,” Mathelier said, adding that people have already asked when Ula will be hosting another event. A strawberry basil limeade was also introduced as a drink to celebrate Juneteenth, and it was so popular that it will remain on the menu through the end of the month. Additionally, a portion of the sales is being donated to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Ula Cafe has also teamed up with Wild Pops, a company located in Egleston Square that creates popsicles using fresh ingredients, to sell the popsicles at the cafe.
Fernandes said that the team hopes to continue to partner with local businesses and organizations in the future.
The team is also very open to suggestions from the community, and during the first week, had a suggestion box for people to write down what they wanted to see.
Santos said that one of the most popular suggestions was to bring back the popovers that were once offered by the cafe and were a huge hit.
“The people want their popovers,” she said, and Fernandes was able to make that happen.
She said that with COVID restrictions lifted, people are beginning to return to a sense of normalcy “Even now, we have people coming in; introducing themselves.” She said people are coming who said they haven’t been to Ula in a year or more, saying they are “just so happy to see it in the hands of local owners,” Santos said.
She also said that people are hoping to see more vegan options and more biscuit breakfasts, as well as “a couple really interesting suggestions about social impact,” which is also a goal of the team.
“I’m most excited about what we can do with the community,” Mathelier said, and “being able to provide good quality food and drinks through Ula.” He also looks forward to more community events and for the cafe to be a regular space for that type of activity.
“Same for me really,” Santos said, adding that “hearing people’s stories and starting to get a better understanding of why they come to Ula” has excited her about the future of the cafe.
“I’m excited for everything,” Fernandes said. “I’m excited to see Ula get back to its prime,” and “super excited to meet the community and feed them.”
Santos encourages residents to come down to the cafe and introduce themselves “and see what we’re up to.”
Mathelier added that he’s interested in hearing feedback of any type, “whether it’s good, bad, or ugly. Let us know what’s going well, what’s going bad, so we can position ourselves for success.”
Santos said that because all three owners live in the community, their customers “aren’t just customers,” she said. “We’re just feeding our neighbors.”
Follow Ula Cafe on Instagram @ulacafe to stay up to date on events and offerings.