Plans to open a hybrid bike repair shop/cafe in the newly renovated Uphams Corner comfort station have been scrapped in favor of a locally owned restaurant that will open its doors next May, according to Historic Boston Inc., which controls the Columbia Road site.
Local entrepreneur Noah de Amor, founder of Bowdoin Bike School, had been a central partner in the restoration process and would have operated the Sip & Spoke bike cafe at the property, a business that was initially slated to open earlier this year. De Amor recently decided he no longer intends to follow through with the plan, said HBI executive director Kathy Kottaridis.
Instead, the space will be occupied by “Comfort Kitchen,” a food establishment described as a “daytime cafe and pop-up dinner experience featuring local food entrepreneurs.”
Biplaw Rai and Nyacko Perry, a Dorchester-based couple with extensive restaurant experience, will operate the eatery. Rai is a managing partner of Shanti Restaurant Group and co-founder of Dudley Cafe, while Perry, his fiancee, is an organization development consultant and founder of Yin Consulting. Rai also sits on the board of directors at Commonwealth Kitchen, a collaborative culinary community based in Grove Hall.
“While the historic Comfort Station’s rehabilitation is substantially complete, we have paused construction and look forward to making a home for Biplaw and Nyacko’s kitchen and program requirements for the space,” said Kottaridis. “Construction will begin again in November and be complete for a spring 2020 opening.”
“We believe that the new ‘Comfort Kitchen’ continues our goals of introducing a locally owned enterprise with a focus on healthy, locally sourced food to the Uphams Corner neighborhood,” she added.
Renovation work began on the 940-square foot Columbia Road structurer nearly a year ago with the aim of completing a “historic rehabilitation” that would modernize the facility while retaining some original design and material aspects from the circa-1912 comfort station.
Initially, plans called for the space to be divided into a cafe with a seating area and a section with a bike repair shop. Now, the focus will shift to equipping the basement with a full kitchen and tweaking the upstairs to feature a cafe and seating area with room for about 35 people, as well as a bar that will serve tea, beer, and wine.
Rai and Perry told the Reporterthey plan to “use the space to the fullest” by operating it as a cafe during daytime hours, and then partnering with local organizations to hold after school programs for kids from 3-5 p.m. before transitioning to a full-service restaurant in the evenings.
The kitchen will be run by chef Kwasi Kwaa, the man behind Chop Bar, a Ghanian street food pop-up at Dudley Cafe in Roxbury. With Kwaa as head chef, Perry said, Comfort Kitchen will serve “comfort food from all parts of the world. Our goal is to build community and cross-cultural understanding through food.”
In that vein, the restaurant will feature special “pop-up” nights in addition to their regular menu, in which Rai and Perry will partner with Commonwealth Kitchen to give up-and-coming entrepreneur chefs a chance to serve their food in a brick and mortar restaurant environment. Those entrepreneurs, the majority of whom are immigrants and/or women of color, would serve a wide range of ethnic cuisines at these events, which Perry hopes will coincide with community group-arranged discussions and forums.
“It’s extremely important that we’re continuously in a relationship with the community,” said Perry. Drawing on her background in organization development, she envisions establishing a community board that would meet bi-monthly at the restaurant in order to build a dialogue about the restaurant’s plans and the needs of neighbors.
“We have to find ways that we’re connected and make sure we’re aware of what the community wants so that, you know, they know what we’re thinking and we’re getting feedback from them,” said Perry.
This level of community engagement is rarely seen in the food industry, but Rai says the mentality is all part of his goal to transform the way people think about their relationships to restaurants, and vice versa.
“We’ve been working on this concept for a long time,” he said. “From my work in Boston, we found out that there’s a lot of disparity in income level, in the kinds of restaurants that open in Dorchester versus somewhere like Somerville, and in the prices those places charge...there’s also a gap of information among consumers and people who work in restaurants and on farms. People are not able to make sound decisions on how they go about supporting restaurants that do community work versus the bigger corporate chains...our foremost goal is to learn more about how we can change the restaurant industry, and involve customers in the process.”
With a focus on food justice and sustainability, Rai plans to source local ingredients and pay workers a starting minimum wage of $15.
“This is not a regular project,” he said. “We want neighbors to know that we are in for the long haul – not just four or five years. We really do want to make an impact through the way we do things, the kind of culture we promote, and the way we treat people. We see it as a sort of life lesson for all three of us, and we are taking it very seriously.”