Maggie Lee: Let it flow

Maggie Lee: Let it flow

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Flow State CoffeeBar is an awesome little café on Frankford Avenue that’s lesbian-owned and operated.

A bright space with a beautiful, whimsical mural spanning the side wall, Flow State is for everyone. Need a place to sit and get some work done but tired of feeling obligated to drink a gallon of coffee to justify taking a seat? Here you can lease the chair for $12 for three hours and it comes with a cup of coffee and a pastry.

The café is the brainchild of three dynamic women: married couple Melanie and Liz Diamond-Manlusoc and friend Maggie Lee. I spoke with Lee over scoops of guava cinnamon gelato.

PGN: Are you from Philly?

ML: Yes. Well, I was born in China, but I’ve been raised in Philly since I was 3. My parents emigrated here in 1982 and we’ve been here ever since. At first, we lived in Chinatown until they saved up for a house. And we moved to the Northeast when I was 11 or 12. [Laughing] We essentially lived in the Chinese-immigrant suburbs.


PGN: What do the parents do?

ML: My mom is a seamstress. The textile industry is pretty much gone in Philly at this point, but in the ’80s there were still a lot of sewing factories, especially in Chinatown. My dad worked at the same factory. He didn’t sew, but he did mechanical tech work for a while, all kinds of hands-on-type work.


PGN: I did an interview a few years back with someone from the Mural Arts Society and I met them in a huge building in the Fishtown area. I remember I got off the elevator on the wrong floor and there was a big room filled with people sewing and denim piled from floor to ceiling. It looked cool. I wanted to run and jump on it!

ML: Yeah. My sister and I both went to Holy Redeemer for grade school and after school we used to walk to the factory at 11th and Vine and hang out until our mom got off work.


PGN: What was the most fun thing about hanging out at the factory?

ML: During Chinese New Year, we would walk around to all the workers and say “Happy New Year!” in Chinese and they would give us red envelopes with money inside. Also, the factory was on the 11th floor. It was high enough that you were slightly removed, but close enough that I could look at my classmates and still distinguish who everyone was. I could watch everyone crossing the street and walking around below. It was like my own little penthouse.


PGN: Is your sister older or younger?

ML: She’s seven years younger. My parents were being responsible and waited until they had some money saved up before having another kid. They gave me a say in it, which was nice. They asked me if I wanted a sibling and I said that I wanted a sister, and nine months later, they gave me one!


PGN: [Laughing] Did you ever regret that decision? Because I have two siblings, and there have been various times that I’ve wanted to return one or both of them!

ML: No, no. But I will say, that was the only time I had a chance to be spoiled and got what I wanted.


PGN: A family tradition?

ML: My family has never really been into traditions. I don’t know. Even though we have a lot of extended family nearby — my mom’s entire side is here and we all live in the area — we didn’t celebrate a lot of big holidays together. In large part because everyone was so busy working. All of my aunts and uncles worked at restaurants or factories, so after about a decade of trying to make it happen, people just started doing their own thing. One thing I do remember was from when I was in preschool. I went to the Children’s Village Daycare and my parents tried hard to help me assimilate. So, for my birthday every year, they would buy me a cake to bring to school to share with everyone. They would get a really expensive cake from, like, Swiss Haus Bakery. A huge $50 fancy sheet cake, which was an exorbitant amount of money to spend for them, especially when they could have gone to Chinatown and gotten something for $15. But they thought that the American kids wanted an American cake, and they wanted to make me look good. So, every year, I got a giant cake, which I loved!


PGN: It must have rubbed off somehow, because now you sell pastries.

ML: I do love a good pastry.


PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up?

ML: I wanted to be a number of things. The first thing was an architect, but my dad shot me down. He’s very realistic and he said, “You’re terrible at math, you cannot be an architect!” I was like, Oh, all right. Ultimately, I did a dual major at La Salle: English and web design. In my heart, though, I always wanted to be a writer. I do that in my own time, but it’s all personal writing, nothing I’d ever want published. One day I will write a book though, [giggles] — and I might even publish it!


PGN: Have you faced any discrimination?

ML: Not really. Holy Redeemer was a Chinese Catholic School so most of my peers were Chinese or some mixture of Asian. When I went to high school, it was a little different because there were kids of all different backgrounds from all different places in the Northeast. Lunch time could be challenging when trying to fit in. I would try to make what I thought was an American sandwich — eggs and Spam — and kids would be like, “What are you eating?”


PGN: What extracurricular things were you involved with?

ML: I was not athletic at all, so I had to forgo any type of sports. I did a lot of service work. I wrote for the school paper. I was kind of a nerd. I remember that I had to interview one of the nuns and I was terrified.


PGN: Was your family religious?

ML: No. I’d say my mom is agnostic and my dad’s a complete atheist. They just thought I’d get a good education and would be less likely to get into trouble.


PGN: And now you’re back in school in a fashion.

ML: Yes, in a way. I work as an instructional designer for a school that has online components, and I build course lessons and media. Liz works for the same company, so we’re always working on it during downtime here creating graphics or video and other content.


PGN: That must be interesting. You get different styles and topics to work with.

ML: Exactly. And it pays the bills while we try to get the shop off the ground.


PGN: So how did Flow State come about?

ML: I lived in Chicago for several years. I moved there with a girlfriend and after we broke up, I stayed. Melanie and Liz were music teachers who played in an indie band. I met them when I was dating one of the band members for a minute. The relationship didn’t last, but my friendship with them did. Melanie at one point decided on a career change and went to culinary school. She was gaining a good reputation but didn’t necessarily like the atmosphere at some of the high-end places she was working. In the meantime, I moved back to Philadelphia. They came to visit me and we started talking one night about opening up a place together. That started a long string of weekly conversations about our vision and direction and then the real steps to making it become a reality. That was about four years ago and we’ve been open less than a year.


PGN: I saw a film called “A Fine Line” last year about women in the food industry and, according to them, less than 7 percent of women own restaurant businesses in the United States. So, congratulations!

ML: Thank you. It’s challenging. Before this, my only experience was three months as a server at a Hibachi Grill. But I love it. It’s new. It’s a very personal business. I get to know people in a different way.


PGN: What was a high point?

ML: When things finally started coming together. There was so much bureaucracy dealing with the city, it sometimes felt like it would never happen. We were waiting for four months at one point, still paying rent and we couldn’t touch anything. Once we got opened and running, it was great. We really feel like part of the neighborhood now. We’ve made an effort to connect, and people have responded.


PGN: Like “Garbage Eve”?

ML: Yes. It’s a term Liz coined. We noticed that after the garbage men came through, there was always trash on the street. So, we started a program: On Garbage Eve, people can come out and get a bucket and grabber from us, and each person who fills a bucket with trash from the block gets a free cup of coffee.


PGN: Is there much of a queer community in this area?

ML: Yes. We get a mix of everyone in here. But there are quite a number of LGBTQ neighbors around. In fact, one day, randomly we noticed that everyone in the place appeared to be queer. We just chuckled to ourselves and secretly termed it “Cruisin’ Tuesdays.” We’ve also done things here with the community. We recently had a SEXx event here with Elicia Gonzales and Susan Dipronio, a salon with poetry readings, and we also have a BDSM group that gathers here once a month for a meet-and-greet.


PGN: When did you come out?

ML: Not until I was in college, just before I graduated. I hung out with the queer kids all throughout, but didn’t come out until my senior year. I first came out as bisexual, even though I’d never been attracted to a guy in my life! Then I met my first girlfriend and I distinctly remember going to karaoke at Sisters, where you were the host!


PGN: Nice! What about the family?

ML: I came out to my friends first and then moved with my girlfriend to Chicago. So I didn’t really deal with it until we broke up. And then I was talking with my dad and told him that I was moving into my own apartment. I told him that she’d been my girlfriend and there was silence on the phone for several seconds. Then he said, “Yeah.” After that, more silence. Then he said, “Do you need money?” And that was about it. When I came home a month later for my sister’s graduation, I was in the car with my parents and my mom turns to me from the front seat and said, “Soooo … you don’t like guys?” “Nope.” “You never did?” “Nope.” “OK, that’s fine. Whatever you want then.” And that was it for her. I’ve been very lucky in that regard.


PGN: Do you have a partner?

ML: Yup. My girlfriend lives in North Carolina. She’s been there for a few years doing a fellowship. We met here at a HotPot! event many years ago and reconnected two years ago. She’ll be moving back here in three months and I can’t wait.


PGN: What are some of the things you’re looking forward to doing with Flow State CoffeeBar?

ML: We have a three-phase plan. Phase one was just get open! But in our future plans, we have access to the basement and we plan to turn it into a quieter workspace. So if you want to be around a more social environment, you can stay upstairs. If you need a quieter environment, you can go downstairs. On the culinary side, Melanie has some ideas of where she wants to go and some exciting new things to try. She just won a “Rising Star” pastry chef award which we’re very proud of. Mainly, we’re just looking forward to being part of the community for the next 5-10 years and hopefully beyond!

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