February 10, 2022
For dozens of years, a city-owned building roughly the size of three college dorm rooms that is sandwiched between a Colonial-era cemetery and Columbia Road in Uphams Corner sat abandoned, featuring for public view gaping holes in its roof and containing extensive water damage.
Come summer, things will be different: The building will offer Dorchester residents affordable, high-quality food from around the world.
Taken under the wing of Historic Boston Inc., a nonprofit that helps bear the cost of restoring bygone buildings, the derelict property received care from award-winning architects then found its way into the hands of immigrant-entrepreneurs looking to open a restaurant: Comfort Kitchen.
After renovations are completed, Biplaw Rai, Nyacko Pearl Perry, Kwasi Kwaa, and Rita Ferreira will open the former public restroom to the neighborhood.
“We are actively building community through food,” said Rai, managing partner of Comfort Kitchen. “Rather than just having a sub or pizza or a rice bowl, Comfort Kitchen is going to offer a whole list of global comfort food that might hit a chord with a lot of people in the city.”
As soon as Historic Boston took on the project, the building, which was put up in 1912, showed its age, meaning there would be a hefty price tag for its rehabilitation.
“Immediately it was a far more expensive project than we could have imagined,” said Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston, citing a little more than $1.9 million as the cost for turning the space into a restaurant.
“That’s a lot of money for what is 1,200 square feet of space,” Kottaridis said.
Her organization approaches charitable sources and uses historic tax credit allocations to raise money and save deteriorated properties from demolition.
“It has an economic value that goes above and beyond making a living over a cash register,” Kottaridis said. “It’s also about helping folks get to become real estate owners.”
The Comfort Kitchen team includes (left to right): Nyacko Pearl Perry, Biplaw Rai, Kwasi Kwaa.
Photos courtesy Historic Boston, Inc.
Historic Boston plans to transfer ownership rights to Comfort Kitchen five years after it opens for business, giving the group of small-business owners a real estate asset. “Uphams Corner is in for a big treat,” Kottaridis said.
Before Comfort Kitchen, Nyacko Pearl Perry worked on a community project doing interviews asking people what additions they would like to see come to Roxbury and Dorchester. A recurring theme, she said, was a desire for food to bring people closer to connect.
Now, looking to offer her neighborhood healthy food, she’s working through a new question: “How do you create new spaces without displacement? Part of the reason why we want to open our own restaurant is so that we can have control over some of these major decisions,” she said. “Specifically, how much are we going to be able to pay employees? How are we able to just actually live out some of the values that we’re seeing have been lacking?”
Before the latest idea for 611 Columbia Rd. came to pass, Utile Architecture and Planning designed a proposal for a restoration that would be occupied by a hybrid café/bicycle shop. Michael LeBlanc, a principal at Utile, was well aware of the building as a vagrant element in the neighborhood.
“I used to live right there in the neighborhood, less than a couple hundred feet away,” he said. “I used to walk my kids right by there all the time, look at that building and always wonder what will ever come of it.”
Abandoned buildings impact communities in a profound, negative way, LeBlanc said, adding that anytime one can be brought back online is especially important.
Nick Buehrens, associate principal at Utile, noted that the challenge for this building was that it was not designed to be an open, publicly accessible space. “We tried to strike as much of a balance in terms of maintaining the historic character of the building, but also adding some increased levels of visual accessibility,” he said.
The restaurant will open for café and lunch service in the morning until early afternoon, then close briefly to prepare for dinner, Rai said. Chef Partner Kwasi’s cuisine has already won widespread acclaim, including from Eater Boston as the best new pop-up of 2021. “Imagine if you’re grandmother’s cooking,” Kwasi said about what flavors to expect.
The seasoned chef said that Comfort Kitchen will take a “global comfort food concept,” using “ingredients that are found all over the globe and really highlighting them in stories that we can put into curated dishes.”
Michael Mawn has been a contractor with Historic Boston for nearly 40 years. He says doing restoration work keeps things interesting, with harder challenges compared to new construction. At the Comfort Station, he replaced its exterior windows and laid a new Spanish clay barrel tile roof.
“A lot of the millwork around the corners is new, custom millwork to match existing profiles,” Mawn said. “On the Spanish tile, we went to considerable expense and trouble to get to match the original.” With help from another architecture firm, Supernormal, the building’s basement will be outfitted with a kitchen.
“It’s going to be a real point of pride for the neighborhood,” Kottaridis said. “It’s been a long journey for a little building.”
For Perry, the challenges of starting a new restaurant in Uphams Corner are compounded by a mission to correct the course of an unjust profession. “The whole model of the food industry is not built on equity,” Perry said. “We are creating our own model.”
A business model that balances offering affordable food of high quality with well-paid employees is a challenge, Perry conceded, but she says she remains motivated by the neighborhood and the building itself.
“They’ve hit on something,” Kottaridis said. “Both in terms of the cuisine they’ve chosen, but also the idea of creating work experiences for people from within the community is really terrific.”