Steve Feldmann and his wife Marie Feldmannova based their café off of the Gulu Gulu in Prague where they had their wedding party. That Gulu has since closed down, and in 2005 the couple started their own in downtown Lynn, where old buildings were being renovated into lofts and they expected a customer increase, but in never happened. After 3.5 years, they decided to relocate to Salem, Mass. and try again—and this time, it worked.
Food was always an afterthought. We thought it would be a coffeehouse/beer bar. The original café Gulu Gulu in Prague, they didn’t have a whole lot of food, you basically went there and had a cappaccino during the day, or went at night and had a Czech beer. They had music, but it was really some hippy kid in the corner with a guitar, which is great, it was perfect. When we started the one in Lynn, we literally were coming up with sandwich ideas the night before we opened, just because we had to have something for people to eat, you know? And what ended up happening is it got pretty popular for lunch. Like with the office workers. I was blindsided by it. We would open up early in the morning for coffees; people wouldn’t show up. I didn’t think anyone would care about the lunches, and we [got] slammed. And then the nighttime scene, we had a nice small nighttime scene but it was odd. A lot of my preconceived notions of what we were trying to do there didn’t [work].
(After 3.5 years in Lynn) We thought, let’s try it again. We thought it was a great concept, but maybe it just wasn’t the right space. We ended up finding this space. This had been empty for a bit. It was a Pheonix School. So they’re in the space and they had a purple linoleum floor and a drop ceiling and old fleurescent lights—it was really fugly. All the bathrooms—you’ll notice some of the bathrooms here are a little shorter—that’s because they’re all built for kids. [The main space] was open all the way through. Basically we kind of went in here and we were like, “We’ll put a wall here.”
This would not work without food. About 70% of our revenue comes directly from food and soft drinks and coffees. [Alcohol] that’s the other 30%.
The menu it’s grown so much over the years. We’re trying to up our game a little bit more. We’re going to still have some crepes, we brought over one of Betty’s smokers. One of the items we want to be able to put on the menu is a smoked duck sandwich, which I am really excited about. I smoked some duck last night, so when we’re done here I’m going to go try some.
We had hired a small staff when we first opened and it’s funny how a lot of the people that [worked there] that just fell in love with the idea of what we were trying to do. You know, revitalize downtown Lynn, the Czech connection to it, the weird beers that nobody had ever heard of at that time—craft beer was not a thing in 2005, it was kind of a hip thing 5 or 10 years later. A lot of the kids that came to work for us early on we’re still close with these people.
As we started to get busier and busier and busier, we had nowhere else to grow up here so we ended up putting in a small prep area downstairs, which has also grown and grown and grown. We have a big catering order going out. As part of Three Kitchens Catering, Smoking Betty’s being the barbecue (which has since closed down), Flying Saucer being the pizza and pastas and stuff, and here at Gulu we do crepes and wraps, cheese plates and things like that.
I didn’t pay myself for a long time. For me, I couldn’t pay myself and have the business be in financial jeopardy, it just doesn’t make any sense. She [Marie] was making enough that we could pay the mortgage and do whatever we had to do.
She’s definitely more of a big ideas person. A lot of the design concepts were hers. Parts of the menu were hers. There’s a couple of Czech items on the menu that were hers. She’s always in charge of that part of the business. As far as working the floors and stuff, during October when the town just becomes a mob scene, that’s when you’ll see more of her around on the weekends and stuff.
We double May’s numbers in October. It gets kind of nutty. The interesting thing is none of the restaurants around here are set up for this. We’re set up for regular business for every other month but October. When you get a mad rush like that it’s nearly impossible to keep up in the kitchen. The staff gets overwhelmed. The first couple weeks there everyone’s like Woohoo, we’re making money! And then the last couple weeks we’re like stop, just make them go away! And then November first comes and we’re like, woo, we did another year. Personally I enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun.
It would be a very different place (without alcohol). Gulu’s a weird hybrid of a lot of different concepts and in a weird way it’s a monster to run. It opens for business at eight in the morning and closes at 1 o clock in the morning. In the mornings it’s a coffeehouse. We have some small breakfast items—bagel sandwiches and things of that nature—but we never do a full breakfast I suppose. We have a lot of people in here for their cappaccinos every morning; it’s a regular business. During the lunch hours it’s definitely a dining place: the place will fill up, everyone’s having their sandwiches, their crepes. And then in the afternoon it almost becomes a tech hub; everyone will show up with their laptop. And then at night it becomes more of a nighttime scene. We have live music a lot of nights of the week. We started Bingo on Sundays, which is so weird, and fun, big prizes. We don’t do Karaoke.
(Gulu Gulu ran an open mic for 12 years and just ended it this January.)[At] the early open mics certain performers would come and play and they would make friends with some of the other performers and they would start playing in bands and get together. It was very organic. It was quite beautiful to watch. Whereas towards the end I found, there was a lot more younger kids. They were just here for themselves; they certainly weren’t here to buy anything or tip the waitresses. Economically it became a problem.
So I thought, you know what, it’s time for a change, let’s just mix this up. You do anything for too long, it’s going to get stale. Twelve years is a wicked long time.