When the DJ turned off the music, Charles Hughes and Ricky Solomon knew it was time to start their own bar.
The married couple recalls dancing at a club with friends a few years ago, Solomon says, when the DJ “stopped everything and screamed in the microphone: ‘men don’t dance with men here.’ That struck a nerve with me. We need to have a gay club, a gay environment that is a safe space for us.”
On Saturday, Hughes and Solomon will officially open Lambda Lounge in Harlem, only the second Black-owned LGBTQ+ bar in New York City. Until government officials allow bars to welcome guests indoors, they plan to open a deck and backyard space on Saturdays between 6-11pm.
“We wanted to create a space for our community that you might get in Soho but bring it uptown,” Hughes says.
Both men work full-time for an insurance company and are the sole owners of Lambda Lounge. But their story goes back further: Hughes was sitting at his desk job one day when he looked out his window and saw an ad for Cîroc—the vodka brand famously endorsed by Sean “Diddy” Combs—and thought to himself: “Why doesn’t the LGBT community have a vodka?”
Hughes and Solomon—39- and 38-years-old, respectively—launched Lambda Vodka, in 2016, the same year they got married. The grain-based vodka is distilled six times and bottled by Citrus Distillers in Jacksonville, Florida. They compare it to Tito’s but with citrus notes and smooth texture.
As they tried to sell the vodka to bars and stores across the city, the community in Harlem was the most receptive (LALA Wine & Liquor on 125th Street and Broadway carries their vodka). They decided opening Lambda Lounge would help give more exposure to their vodka and planned to open on April 10—but then the city shut down everything in mid March.
“It's been rough for us because we're fronting the cost of everything. We're the only ones,” says Hughes. “I don’t know if surreal is the word for it; it was a numbness. You invest so much time and money and then it’s on hold indefinitely.”
The current crisis has been particularly challenging for bars catering to the LGBTQ+ community. Only six blocks north of Lambda Lounge is Alibi Lounge, the only other Black-owned gay bar in town, which was on the brink of closing.
“You don’t do anything unless you see people that look like you do it,” says Hughes. “I think it’s a great privilege to be number 2.”
The couple said the protests and activism around the Black Lives Matter movement also propelled them to go forward with their opening.
When they can open inside, the 15-seat bar also includes three “VIP” sections filled with couches, LED-lit tables, photo booths, PlayStations, buttons to call servers and a full cocktail menu. Each week, they plan to have four nights of promotions, including featuring DJs popular in the LGBTQ+ community and a Sunday house music night.
“We need to show an image of Black people and people of color doing really great things,” says Solomon. “We love to inspire others to do the same.”
Lambda Lounge is located at 2256 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (between 132nd and 133rd Street), New York, NY 10027
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