Food News

At Ula Cafe in Jamaica Plain, customers are encouraged to pay it forward

Has a stranger ever paid for your coffee or meal? It's not an unheard of act of kindness, but perhaps one we all could use a little more of.

Ula Cafe
A Call It Out event at Jamaica Plain's Ula Cafe. Ula Cafe

A local cafe is hoping to put the concept of paying it forward front-and-center.

At Ula Cafe in Jamaica Plain, owners Kelly Fernandes, Marvin Mathelier, and Beth Santos have instituted a Pay It Forward wall located inside the coffee shop.

The idea is simple: While paying for their own order, guests can purchase an extra coffee, pastry, breakfast sandwich, or anything else from Ula’s menu at the register, with the option to add a message (such as “one iced coffee — stay cool!”). Staff will then place a Post-It note with that item on the wall, which can then be redeemed by anyone who comes in — no questions asked. When ordering online through ChowNow, customers can also tack on a Pay It Forward option to their order.

Pay It Forward wall at Ula Cafe
Pay It Forward wall at Ula Cafe. – Ula Cafe

The wall went up in early June, and Santos said the community’s reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

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“That wall filled the first week,” she said. “People got it. They understood. We’ve seen people cry when we told them about what the Pay It Forward wall did.”

So far, there are more customers contributing to the wall than redeeming the Post-Its, but Santos said she has seen an uptick in the latter.

“I’ll be honest, I was a little concerned in the beginning,” she said. “Are people going to feel uncomfortable redeeming something? Are they going to feel like we’re judging them? We’ve had a lot of conversations as a team that this place is built for everyone. Everyone here is welcome. This is our way of saying that out loud, and making sure that people don’t feel uncomfortable if they have to redeem something. This is just our community helping our community.”

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As residents of Jamaica Plain’s Egleston Square, Santos and her husband, Mathelier, were frequent customers of Ula, and had started to toss around the idea of opening their own cafe. When Ula, which is located in the Brewery Complex on Amory Street, went up for sale in April, the two partnered with Fernandes — a chef whose previous experience includes stints at Allium Market, Bergamot, Menton, the Four Seasons Hotel, and Sycamore — and bought the business.

“It was totally exciting, and it felt completely right,” Santos said. “For us, it’s not just like we’re running a food establishment. We’re feeding our neighbors.”

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Santos said they were partially inspired to start the wall after watching an episode of CNN’s “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy.” The actor visited Naples and highlighted the tradition of caffè sospeso, or “suspended coffee,” where customers pay for two cups of coffee: one for now, and one for someone who needs it later.

“We were watching this episode, and I was like, that is such a JP thing to do,” Santos said. “There are so many great people here who want to give back, and there’s people that need it for whatever reason. They need the support of our community because the economic landscape of this neighborhood is changing. People are being pushed out. Sometimes we forget that we each individually have a chance to do something.”

Ula Cafe owners
Ula Cafe owners: Kelly Fernandes, Marvin Mathelier, and Beth Santos. – Ula Cafe

In addition to the Pay It Forward wall, Ula’s new ownership launched monthly specials that give back to various organizations in Boston. In June, a portion of sales from the cafe’s strawberry basil limeade went to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; this month, a blueberry lavender lemonade will help raise funds for the Pine Street Inn. There will be some upcoming menu changes, too, with Fernandes adding dishes that nod to the owners’ global backgrounds of Cape Verde, Haiti, and Portugal. In the coming weeks, the cafe will reopen its indoor seating, which was suspended at the start of the pandemic, and aims to start showcasing local artwork on its walls.

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“Boston has changed so much,” Santos said. “We feel really passionately about creating a place that can be inclusive for everyone. For me a cafe is less about coffee and more about a place that people can call home — something that brings people together.”

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