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Through a pay-it-forward wall, Ula Cafe serves up coffee with a side of kindness

At Ula Cafe in Jamaica Plain, co-owner Beth Santos looks at some of the sticky notes on the pay-it-forward wall, where customers can buy items to be redeemed later by anybody in need.
At Ula Cafe in Jamaica Plain, co-owner Beth Santos looks at some of the sticky notes on the pay-it-forward wall, where customers can buy items to be redeemed later by anybody in need.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

At Ula Cafe in Jamaica Plain, random acts of kindness just got a little more organized.

A pay-it-forward wall, where customers can purchase an item, write it on a sticky note, and add it to a blackboard inside the Egleston Square coffeehouse for another patron to redeem, was put up in early June.

“We want Ula to be known for more than just being a cafe — we want it to continue to be known as a place where people feel welcome and valued,” said Beth Santos, a co-owner of Ula. “I just hope that the pay-it-forward wall becomes something that’s not special at all, because it’s just such a regular part of your Ula experience.”

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At Ula Cafe, which sells classic fare like pastries and coffee, a pay-it-forward wall allows customers to buy food that can later be claimed by total strangers.
At Ula Cafe, which sells classic fare like pastries and coffee, a pay-it-forward wall allows customers to buy food that can later be claimed by total strangers. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Santos took over Ula with her husband, Marvin Mathelier, and Kelly Fernandes, who also serves as executive chef, in early June. Their menu is built around classic cafe fare like breakfast burritos, roast beef sandwiches, and plenty of coffee and pastry options. It was the CNN series “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” that inspired Santos to initiate the pay-it-forward wall.

In the first episode, Tucci, the Academy Award-nominated actor and foodie, travels to Naples, where a policeman orders a “caffè sospeso” — a suspended coffee — a tradition in the region where a coffee is ordered and then later redeemed by a person in need.

“I was like, ‘That is such a JP thing,’” Santos said. “I think our neighborhood would really eat that up.”

She hung the pay-it-forward display on an empty wall in the shop, and “it took off literally from day one,” Santos said. A popover, a small iced tea, and a lunch sandwich were all recent items up for grabs. Customers can redeem up to two items per person.

“I knew in my bones that people would buy stuff, because our neighborhood is just such an amazing neighborhood,” Santos said, “but I honestly wasn’t sure if people would redeem it.”

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“I knew in my bones that people would buy stuff, because our neighborhood is just such an amazing neighborhood,” said Beth Santos, co-owner of Ula Cafe in Jamaica Plain, which put up a pay-it-forward wall in June that allows customers to pay for items that can be redeemed by future patrons.
“I knew in my bones that people would buy stuff, because our neighborhood is just such an amazing neighborhood,” said Beth Santos, co-owner of Ula Cafe in Jamaica Plain, which put up a pay-it-forward wall in June that allows customers to pay for items that can be redeemed by future patrons. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Santos said she worried that people who didn’t have the money to pay for items wouldn’t come into the cafe at all, or that they might not be comfortable using the wall’s gifts.

“This is our way of helping each other,” she said. “Maybe you left your wallet at home, maybe your lights were turned off. Whatever the reason is … everyone should be able to eat at Ula regardless of your financial situation.”

The sticky notes now rotate regularly, Santos said, and it’s always filled with the generosity of strangers, some of whom include little notes, like “spread some joy today.” Customers ordering online through ChowNow can also purchase items to be added to the wall.

“We hear stories of people being pushed out of the neighborhood and I feel like a lot of us really don’t know what to do about it,” said Santos, pointing to the gentrification of the area. “At the same time, I think each of us has our own power to help our neighbors.”

The pay-it-forward project isn’t the only social justice undertaking from Ula, a Black-owned, women-owned, and veteran-owned business . A portion of proceeds from the monthly specialty drink goes to a different cause every month — in September, the drink is a spiced pear ginger beer sparkler, and the organization is Women for Afghan Women.

“It was such a powerful feeling, just being able to say, ‘Hey, we got you,’” said co-owner of Ula Cafe Marvin Mathelier about the eatery's pay-it-forward wall, which allows people in need to redeem a free food or drink item that was paid for by a previous customer.
“It was such a powerful feeling, just being able to say, ‘Hey, we got you,’” said co-owner of Ula Cafe Marvin Mathelier about the eatery's pay-it-forward wall, which allows people in need to redeem a free food or drink item that was paid for by a previous customer. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“I’m so happy that at least within our cafe that’s tucked away in JP, we’re supporting as best as we can across the other side of the world,” said Mathelier, a veteran who served in Afghanistan.

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The cafe is also hosting a school supply drive through Sept. 15 for Schools on Wheels of Massachusetts. Sustainable food is also a priority in the eatery, which is aiming to eliminate all single-use plastics from the store by 2023.

The next step for the wall, Mathelier and Santos said, is making sure as many people as possible know it’s there. “We still surprise people when they come in our door sometimes,” Santos said. To increase foot traffic, they want to start doing community events, like open mics or story slams. “The more people that come in our doors, the more people that are participating in the wall and helping each other,” Santos said.


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com