Voltage hopes to generate more than a caffeine buzz

Voltage hopes to generate more than a caffeine buzz

Wicked Local staff photo by David Gordon

Voltage Coffee owner Lucy Valena stops for a photo in her new shop on Thursday morning, November 18, 2010.


In science- and research-driven Kendall Square, Lucy Valena wanted to create an “art portal in a science space.” With the idea of bringing quality coffee and art to the people of Cambridge, Valena opened Voltage Coffee & Art at 295 Third St. earlier last month.

Valena fell in love with coffee as a high school student. She would spend hours at the library researching how coffee and coffeehouses shaped the world. Although Valena went on to study fine arts, she never lost her love for coffee. After college, Valena moved to Seattle, the coffee center of the U.S.

“In Seattle, I heard so many wild ideas people discussed and then acted on,” she said. “It made me think of the ideas Bostonians could have if they had the same amount of caffeine and coffee.”

Originally from New Hampshire, Valena returned to New England with her idea to open a coffee shop. Starting small, she opened an espresso catering service in which she would set up a cart for business meetings and other corporate events. Even this small-scale venture required Valena to look past banks and traditional lending programs for financing.

Valena sought help from Jim Koch’s “Sam Adams’ Brewing the American Dream” micro-lending program. Koch started Sam Adams in his kitchen 26 years ago, and the company has since grown into the largest American-owned brewery.

“You can have a good idea, but it is hard to get money and hard to get good advice and counseling,” Koch said. “Those are two of the things I wish I would have had access to.”

Koch, working with Accion USA, a micro-lending nonprofit, granted Valena a $4,000 loan with which she bought an espresso machine and a Zipcar membership. Valena was also able to take advantage of legal and marketing advice from the Boston Beer Company.

“Lucy was very passionate about what she was doing and very committed,” Koch said. “She showed the ability to successfully run a business; it was only one person, but it showed a lot of drive.”

Her initial success with the espresso catering company drove Valena to continue her mission to open not simply a coffee shop, but a traditional coffeehouse. Coffeehouses gained popularly during the Enlightenment Period in Europe and were places where people gathered to discuss new ideas. The French Revolution was born in a coffeehouse, according to Valena. In the aftermath of the recent recession, Valena believes now is the time for coffeehouses and new ideas.

“I wanted a coffee shop to be a buzzing hive of good ideas like a traditional coffeehouse, not a second office like coffee shops are turning into today,” Valena said.

Valena had the drive to open her own coffeehouse, but finding the money during a recession can be difficult. Even during the best of economic times, loans are hard to obtain for new coffee shop businesses. 

“Coffee shops are high-risk businesses, so I didn’t go through traditional means such as getting a bank loan,” said Valena, who used a venture capital firm, Launch Capital in Harvard Square, to obtain a $150,000 loan from that organization.

Now, coffee connoisseurs around Kendall have a choice between corporate Starbucks and Valena’s local coffee creations.

“There are plenty of places in Cambridge where you can get a fast, terrible cup of coffee,” Valena said. “You have to wait longer here, but you get a good cup of coffee. If customers appreciate coffee, they will wait.”

Valena’s double Ethiopian blend house coffee beans come from Barrington Coffee Roasters in the western Mass. town of Lee. The milk comes from a dairy farm, also in Lee. Each week, Voltage has a rotating guest coffee roaster for signature beans. Using local products hasn’t made the coffee any more expensive than what customers can find at Starbucks or other chain coffee shops. An espresso is $2, a small latte is $3 and a large is $3.50. Sizes are slightly smaller, however, than Starbucks.

Finding under-caffeinated people in Kendall won’t be a problem for Valena, but getting them to come into Voltage instead of their usual Starbucks may be a problem.

“Drinking coffee is the No. 1 thing people do in the morning. People are creatures of habit, so it will be hard for them to break their usual coffee routine,” said Harry Balzer of NPD Group, a marketing and research group on America’s eating and drinking habits.

Valena hopes to entice people to switch to Voltage coffee by promoting exotic flavors that customers can’t find anywhere else. Vanilla, hazelnut and toffee are traditional flavored syrups at almost any coffee shop in the U.S. At Voltage, Valena mixes her own syrups for exotic flavors such as “kitsch and the cactus” (lime peel and agave), “paper plane” (cardamom, rose water and honey) and “devil may care” (molasses and lemon zest), which customers can add to lattes and hot chocolates.

Valena has succeeded in bringing an art portal to the science hub of Cambridge. Voltage looks like an art studio with sporadically colored walls of pink, blue and yellow and a concrete floor. An easel greets customers at the entranceway with a quote from a famous artist. Paintings hang from every wall. “I believe that everyone should see art on a daily basis. You can’t go to a gallery every day, but you can go to a coffee shop,” Valena said.

Valena is hoping coffee drinkers in Kendall Square will trade their Starbucks for Voltage brews — she estimates 120-140 people come in daily. Afternoons seem to be the busiest, according to Valena.

One customer, Michael Cohen of VC Ready Law Group, sat in the corner with his computer and large mug of black coffee.

“The coffee is great and the company is good, too,” he said. “One time I saw people from the 2010 TechStars program meeting here. I hope this becomes a meeting place for the start-up community in Kendall.”

By Gillian Rich

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