A new stage: After taking over Iconica Social Club during pandemic, actors have high hopes for future

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  • At top, Will Swyers, right, working a 1942 NCR cash register, helps customers Katie St. Angelo, left, and Rebecca Swartz, both of Worcester, at the Iconica Social Club in Northampton on April 21. Below left, Will Swyers and Ximena Salmerón, the cafe’s new owners. Below right, a carrot and ginger walnut muffin, foreground, and pistachio and cherry scone, baked by Swyers and Salmerón. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A carrot and ginger walnut muffin, foreground, and pistachio and cherry scone, baked by Will Swyers and Ximena Salmerón, the new owners of Iconica Social Club in Northampton. Photographed on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ximena Salmerón and Will Swyers, the new owners of Iconica Social Club, pose outside the downtown Northampton cafe. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A strawberry cold press juice awaits a customer at the Iconica Social Club in downtown Northampton on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Will Swyers and Ximena Salmerón, the new owners of Iconica Social Club, pose upstairs in the library of the downtown Northampton cafe on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A carrot and ginger walnut muffin baked by Will Swyers and Ximena Salmerón, the new owners of Iconica Social Club. Photographed on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Patrons sit in the Iconica Social Club gallery on the ground floor of the downtown Northampton cafe on April 21. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Will Swyers, right, working a 1942 NCR cash register, helps customers Katie St. Angelo, left, and Rebecca Swartz, both of Worcester, at the Iconica Social Club in Northampton on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. The cafe, on Amber Lane, looks out onto the Masonic Street parking lot and Cracker Barrel Alley. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/28/2021 1:41:24 PM

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 endeavor they turned to.

They ended up taking over downtown cafe Iconica Social Club, “which was a lot more bold than anything we had in mind,” Salmerón said. It was a “life-changing moment for us,” Salmerón said.

The couple took over in August as owners and operators of Iconica, which is located at 1 Amber Lane, looking out at the Masonic Street parking lot and Cracker Barrel Alley.

“We took over a business during the pandemic, which turned out to be the most difficult possible thing we could try to do,” Swyers said. “It was really exciting and beautiful at the beginning,” he said and then “months of brutally hard work to survive through the pandemic winter.”

Swyers, a Northampton native, and Salmerón, who grew up in Mexico City, met when they were studying mime in Paris at École internationale de thétre Jacques Lecoq. Later, they moved back to Northampton.

Last year, they planned to move in April from Northampton to New York City, drawn to its reputation as a hub for performers. “And then March rolled around,” Swyers said, “the March surprise. We realized it probably wasn’t the ideal time to move to New York.”

“We just realized that theater might take a few years to recover,” Salmerón said. “We kind of realized we might have to look for a different option long-term.”

Though Swyers and Salmerón had never owned a cafe before, “we’ve had a lot of experience in the restaurant industry, as many actors do,” Swyers said.

Before taking over Iconica, they both were working at HighBrow Wood Fired Kitchen + Bar in downtown Northampton.

Iconica’s previous 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 everything,” Salmerón said. So for a month, they learned how to make everything the cafe baked and how to prepare the drinks.

“We were suddenly actors trying to pretend and mime all of the stuff 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 carriage house building and renovated it themselves, using salvaged materials and a do-it-yourself approach.

“The space itself has always been just as important as what were serving and what were offering the public,” Em Withenbury said.

One day Swyers and his mom, a regular at Iconica, walked by the cafe when the Withenburys were outside and they started talking, Em Withenbury recalled.

They were looking to transition the business to owners who were artists. “We were looking for people who were whimsical,” Em Withenbury said. Fitzpatrick Withenbury struggled to picture who would run the business and do it in a customer-facing way. “For me, that was the most important thing — to find someone who would carry on the owner-facing feeling at Iconica.”

When they met Salmerón and Swyers, “we could tell it was a prefect fit,” Em Withenbury said.

‘Welcome back tosomething new’

The cafe’s new owners are building on the original version of the business.

“We’ve kept a lot of the things people love about it,” Swyers said. “We’ve also adapted to things that we liked.”

As Iconica’s website now says: “Welcome back to something new.”

Lamb chili was a popular item over winter, they said. “We try to keep things more creative,” Swyers said. “What is an item of food that makes you go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting … That’s a strange combination,’” Salmerón added.

In its previous iteration, the cafe hosted events, like poetry readings and mind-reading performances.

“What we really loved about Iconica was the fact it was an event space,” Salmerón said. “Even during the pandemic, we had a play outside with really socially distanced people.”

She added, “We are incredibly excited about having outdoor plays.”

For now, they are the only people working at the cafe. Both are in “Moving Water,” a play from Serious Play Theatre Ensemble that they said is slated to open this summer.

“We might just have to be closed on days where we open the play — because we are the same people that run the cafe,” Salmerón said.

They hope to eventually grow. “Hopefully we can become more of a place that has a staff,” Swyers said. The duo recalled once working more than 30 hours fulfilling orders for 40 pies and hundreds of cookies before Christmas.

Though it was difficult at first, as the weather gets warmer and the pandemic eases, it’s getting easier, Swyers said.

“It’s starting to become less a constant struggle to survive,” Swyers said. “We’re getting more of a rewarding experience. I don’t regret this crazy wild ride”

“No, no, no,” Salmerón said. “It’s also been so much fun.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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