After taking over Iconica Social Club during pandemic, actors have high hopes for the future
NORTHAMPTON – Over the summer, Will Swyers and Ximena Salmerón, both actors, were looking for a new project. Something bold, they said. But it wasn’t an acting attempt they turned to.
They ended up taking over the downtown Iconica Social Club cafe, “which was a lot bolder than anything we had in mind,” said Salmerón. It was a “life-changing moment for us,” said Salmerón.
The couple took over in August as owners and operators of Iconica, which is located at 1 Amber Lane, overlooking the parking lot of Masonic Street and Cracker Barrel Alley.
“We took over a business during the pandemic, which turned out to be the most difficult thing we could try to do,” Swyers said. “It was really exciting and beautiful at first,” he said, then “months of brutal hard work to survive the pandemic winter”.
Swyers, originally from Northampton, and Salmerón, who grew up in Mexico City, met while studying mime in Paris at the Jacques Lecoq International Theater School. They later returned to Northampton.
Last year, they planned to move in April from Northampton to New York City, drawn by its reputation as a hub for artists. “And then March unfolded,” Swyers said, “the surprise of March. We realized that it probably wasn’t the perfect time to move to New York.
“We just realized that the theater could take a few years to recover,” said Salmerón. “We kind of realized that we might have to look for another option in the long term.”
Although Swyers and Salmerón have never owned a cafe before, “we’ve had a lot of experience in the restaurant industry, as many players do,” Swyers said.
Before taking over Iconica, they both worked at HighBrow Wood Fired Kitchen + Bar in downtown Northampton.
Former Iconica owners Em Withenbury and Fitzpatrick Withenbury trained the new owners. “They didn’t have a single employee. They were the only ones who knew how to do it all, ”said Salmerón. So for a month, they learned how to make all the cooked coffee and how to prepare the drinks.
“We were suddenly actors trying to pretend and exploit whatever we were doing,” Swyers said jokingly. “I didn’t know anything about coffee.”
The previous owners moved to Northampton from San Francisco and opened the cafe in 2017. They bought the building from the shed and renovated it themselves, using salvaged materials and a DIY approach.
“Space itself has always been as important as what served and what offered to the public,” said Em Withenbury.
One day Swyers and her mother, an Iconica regular, walked past the cafe as the Withenburys were outside and started talking, Em Withenbury recalls.
They were looking to pass the business over to owners who were artists. “We were looking for fancy people,” said Em Withenbury. Fitzpatrick Withenbury found it hard to imagine who would run the business and make it in contact with the client. “For me that was the most important thing – finding someone who would perpetuate the feeling of being in front of the owner at Iconica.”
When they met Salmerón and Swyers, “we could tell it was a good deal,” said Em Withenbury.
The new owners of the café are building on the original version of the business.
“We’ve retained a lot of things that people love about it,” Swyers said. “We also adapted to the things we liked.”
As the Iconica website now says, “Welcome back to something new.”
Lamb chili was a popular product in the winter, they said. “We try to keep things more creative,” Swyers said. “What is a food that makes you say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting… It’s a strange combination,’” added Salmerón.
In its previous version, the cafe hosted events, such as poetry readings and mind reading performances.
“What we really liked about Iconica was the fact that it was an event space,” said Salmerón. “Even during the pandemic, we played outside with people who were really removed from society.”
She added: “We are extremely excited to have outdoor games.”
At the moment, they are the only people working in the cafe. The two are in “Moving Water,” a play by the Serious Play Theater Ensemble which they say is set to open this summer.
“We may have to be closed on the days we open the room – because we are the same people who run the cafe,” said Salmerón.
They hope to eventually grow up. “Hopefully we can become more of a staffed place,” Swyers said. The duo recalled working more than 30 hours to process orders of 40 pies and hundreds of cookies before Christmas.
Although it was difficult at first, as the weather warms up and the pandemic abates, it gets easier, Swyers said.
“It’s starting to become less of a constant struggle to survive,” Swyers said. “We are living a more enriching experience. I don’t regret this crazy wild ride ”
“No, no, no,” said Salmerón. “It was also so much fun.”
Greta Jochem can be contacted at [email protected]