Few cafes in the world can offer you a seat just steps away from the work of renowned contemporary artists. But at Lickety Split at MASS MoCA, you can enjoy your soup and quiche with a side of Sol Lewitt, James Turrell, or Robert Rauschenberg, six days a week.
Everything about the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art feels larger than life, with its maze of galleries and performing arts spaces winding through a series of converted factory buildings on a 16-acre campus. Since the 1800s, the complex was first home to the Arnold Print Works textile printing and fabrication, and later the Sprague Electric Company. Vestiges of its industrial past linger both in the architecture and in the general energy of the spaces, holding within a history that inspires further exploration The buildings and grounds have important historical significance to the city of North Adams and the broader region, with MASS MoCA at the forefront of dynamic and inclusive community partnerships, and leading the charge in the revitalization of Northern Berkshire County. While best known for its collection contemporary visual art, the indoor and outdoor performing arts spaces at MASS MoCA also host a broad range of popular musical acts (Annie Lennox, Dinosaur Jr, George Clinton and P. Funk, The National, and Courtney Barnett, to name a few) as well as multi-day music festivals (including the annual Fresh Grass and Solid Sound festivals).
Located in the main building, Lickety Split mirrors the airy and inviting feeling visitors find throughout the museum, with daylight pouring through tall windows onto sage colored walls and oak floors, and massive wooden beams cutting across the ceiling. Surrounded by dynamic and inspiring spaces where art can be experienced and felt, the cafe has grown with the museum, helping to fuel the spirit of enrichment and innovation that drives its mission.
Here, at the about 30 cafe tables, you will find museum staff sitting for lunch, artists, students, visitors of all ages from all over the world enjoying perfectly composed sandwiches and wraps, crunching into crisp greens, apple slices, and potato chips. Parents and grandparents with toddlers in tow pause for a snack break from Kidspace, the interactive children’s gallery right upstairs. Cups of icy, fresh squeezed lemonade and top-heavy ice cream cones, for which the cafe is well-known, are passed over the counter to eager guests. They offer sandwiches, salads, burritos, and panini, made to order using local ingredients whenever possible, with their quiche and Senegalese chicken soup among their most popular items. Buttery cookies to accompany cups of hot coffee from local roastery No. Six Depot (check out their custom blend Mass Moka!) sit at the ready within a case of tempting baked goods near the register.
A typical afternoon will also find Danielle Ralys, the confident and personable manager of Lickety Split, hard at work, orchestrating the staff and the selection, ensuring everything about their service runs smoothly. When I ask her to share the history of the cafe, Danielle obliges without hesitation, all the while exhibiting a finely-honed sonar. It’s the kind of sense you develop over years when you grow up in a restaurant, holding a conversation while seamlessly responding to the needs of a cashier at the register, a customer at the coffee station, and kitchen staff in the prep area. Danielle’s parents opened the original Lickety Split ice cream shop in the neighboring town of Williamstown in 1996, and ventured on a small outpost with limited selections within the museum when MASS MoCA opened its doors in 1999. Before long, it became clear that ice cream, lemonade, and quiche would not be enough to fully meet the needs, or the appetites, of their new audience. A more expanded menu developed and grew, and with it, Danielle’s experience within the family business.
“It started with my family - just my mom and dad, me and my grandmother. Since I was 10 years old, I’ve known how to talk to people, how to handle money. I knew how to run a business.” Danielle worked in the cafe all throughout high school, then went to college in Boston where she made the rounds working in retail and other coffee shops. “Wherever I worked, whether it was in retail or at a desk job, my bosses were always amazed by how adept I was at communicating with customers. You can’t replace first-hand experience, and having that foundation has been the best thing for me. I 100% grew up here, and that’s what brought me back.”
After college, Danielle returned to a life at the cafe. Taking on the role of manager in 2014 has meant overseeing operations that go far beyond that of a typical cafe. Lickey Split provides the catering services within the entire MASS MoCA campus - for exhibition openings, events, and performances. “We offer dinner selections for the audience before a show, we cater for the crew, as well as for the performers backstage” says Danielle smiling “and for the artists in residence, here for one or two weeks at a time, we see them every day - and some very cool people come through here.”
Normally, such savory and delicious food would be a tough act to follow, but at Lickety Split, they also craft their own ice cream right on the premises, one 13-gallon tub at a time. Guests can indulge in flavors like Burnt Sugar and Butter, Cookie Combustion, Espresso Chip, and their signature flavor, Purple Cow, which features both milk-chocolate and white-chocolate chips in smooth, black raspberry ice cream. Danielle laughs with a broad smile when she talks about Purple Cow - a flavor her family created for nearby Williams College, and named for its mascot. One of their earliest concoctions, the flavor followed them to MASS MoCA from their original Williamstown location. “People go crazy for it - they call ahead to see if we have it available, or if we’ll ship some to Idaho.” [sorry, they don’t] “We make all our ice cream in very small batches, in a process that results in a very creamy and high-fat content. It’s a lot of work but it’s very rewarding. People really love it!”
Creating and serving specialty food in a region reliant on seasonal business is a challenging prospect. Like most other businesses in the area, staffing is a chief concern for the cafe, with an exponential increase in the number of daily visitors as they shift from the off-season to the summertime crowds. “We’re open almost 365 days a year, but at the same time business can feel very seasonal,” says Danielle. But what is also clear is that, as MASS MoCA extends its programming throughout the year, drawing bigger names to their stages and bigger audiences that need to eat, Lickety Split - and Danielle Ralys’ passion for the business - will grow with it.
“There’s something about being here... I’ve worked retail, I’ve worked in other kinds of businesses, but I’ve never had an experience quite like being here in the cafe, here in MASS MoCA. My parents have done it for over 20 years, and there’s going to be a time when they’re ready to be done. I plan on taking over the business when that time comes.” She gestures towards the cafe space and the galleries that sit beyond. “There’s just nothing like this anywhere in the world. It’s exciting every single day. Some people grow up in a place and leave and never turn back. But I’ve never had any doubt that this is where I want to be. I feel lucky, and I love it.”