Ambassador Digital Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Musa Jackson has an in-depth Q & A with Richard Solomon & Charles Hughes, the married owners of Lambda Vodka and the new LGBTQ hot spot, Lambda Lounge in Harlem. The couple talk about their vastly different childhoods, coming out, and the challenges of being Black Gay entrepreneurs and the triumphs of building a brand during a pandemic.
Q. Where are you from?
RICHARD: I’m from the Boogie Down Bronx, a New York native born and raised. The South Bronx.
CHARLES: I’m originally from Richmond, Virginia, born and raised.
Q. What was life like for you both growing up?
RICHARD: It was rough for me growing up in the hood, but that was my way of life. That was the only thing I understood, so it was normal for me. It was normalized being in that type of environment. You’re dealing with shootings on the streets, you’re dealing with robbings and killings. You become used to dealing with stuff like that. The area I grew up in the South Bronx was Webster Avenue. They used to call it Vietnam. It was pretty rough; we moved around a lot in the Bronx and then we went ahead and settled in Throgsneck. It was kind of an upscale projects. It wasn’t as bad as Webster Avenue and the South Bronx; it was a little better, but still, you didn’t really aspire to much.
I went to school, kept good grades. I was pretty good in school; I was into technology. My mother did what she needed to do to take care of me and my brother. We were really just trying to survive.,
CHARLES: My upbringing was completely the opposite from his. It was a structured environment. I was raised in the suburbs of Richmond by my mother. My father wasn’t really active in my life growing up. I was very much into the arts as a kid. I did a lot of acting in high school, a lot of dancing. I played instruments.
RICHARD: He knows how to play the viola. (laughs)
CHARLES: I played it for fifteen years growing up.
RICHARD: I don’t know nothing about playing instruments from where I grew up. (laughs)
CHARLES: Musa, you put that in my hands and I can’t do nothing with it. That was pretty much my upbringing in Virginia. After high school, I went directly to college, graduated and moved to New York City.
Q. When did you come out?
RICHARD: I was definitely [out] in my teens, probably about 17 or something like that. Of course I had the kind of mother, she already knew. She was just waiting for me to come out with it. I had a supportive family. I didn’t really have any issues with anyone treating me differently. I had a godfather who was openly gay, an older man. So when I came out, my mother thought the best thing to do to expose me to the lifestyle was to kind of hand me off to him. I don’t want to make it sound like she was giving me away, but he could show me the lifestyle, the do’s and the don’ts. That went pretty well. I had opportunities to get exposed to things most kids my age didn’t get. It matured me very quickly. I had a very easy transition. I have one of those mothers; she goes to Pride [marches] with me. I’m pretty sure Charles is going to tell you a different story. (laughs)
CHARLES: So mine was completely the opposite. I didn’t tell my mother until I was about 21 years old. She didn’t handle it well. We had a really great relationship; she was like my best friend, but when I told her, it was very much of “I don’t condone or want to know too much about it.” I never asked her, but I do believe it was because we had a relative who died of AIDS. I think that might of scared her. After I came out, my life was very private. I separated it from her and the rest of my family.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I became more accepting of myself. I started sharing relationships with her and Ricky was the first and last person she will ever meet. She and the rest of my family were very open and accepting of myself and Ricky.
Q. So how did you guys meet?
CHARLES: I moved to the Bronx and lived with a friend I grew up with who was also gay and that friend and Ricky were very close friends. As soon as I met Ricky, I knew that he was going to be the man I was going to be with. It took a little while, maybe after a year’s time, he finally came around and we started dating.
RICHARD: He chased me down. We would meet up at mutual friends…at house parties. He would be hanging out with the guy and I would be hanging out with the guy. So that’s how we got connected; we were constantly around each other, but I was never really feeling him. He was a country boy, I’m a New Yorker. They tend to dress differently. New Yorkers are a lot more trendy. These southerners still wear their white tee shirts down to their knee caps. (laughs) For me, it was “who is this country bumpkin trying to holla at me when I got choices?” I was like, “Boy get outta here.” So we were hanging at a house party one day. My plan was to chill and crash there for the night. So Chuck goes to the back. He had finally got comfortable and came back in basketball shorts and a tank top. So I finally got to see what he actually looked like. I was like, “Oh my God! I got to have that.” It was a moment I said to myself, “he’s hot.” New Yorkers tend to be superficial; it’s all about the visual. So we hooked up. You know how we gays are. We hooked up. He came to my house in New Jersey.
CHARLES: Musa, I brought a bottle of liquor and we were gonna chill. And you know, we in our early twenties, purchasing a bottle of liquor means something.
RICHARD: He pulled out all the stops, but I was young. In my mind, I conquered it. I got it and I’m over it. I don’t want it anymore, so I never hit him back. He kept trying and I never hit back. I don’t remember how we met up again.
CHARLES: That’s when the shorts thing happened.
RICHARD: Oh, so we hooked up before the shorts, then the shorts and tank top thing happened. I was like, “Oh okay. (laughs) We need to see where this goes.” Then he pursued me and pulled out all his tricks. That southern charm and I got hooked.
Q. So how long were you dating prior to getting married?
RICHARD: We were together for eight years, married almost four years.
Q. What were you doing for employment before you started Lambda Vodka?
RICHARD: Before we got married, we both were working for the same company, Affinity Health Plan, so we were constantly up under each other. Originally he was working for my company’s competitor and then he decided to transition over for a management position. I’m in the IT department, he’s in the finance department. We were transitioning and starting the vodka business, so while we’re working at the office, we were trying to put things together for the creation of the Vodka. I’m pretty sure they were wondering why our productivity was dropping. We were constantly doing both things at the same time. We would leave the job and we would have to do something with the vodka.
The day we got married, we went down to City Hall. It was me, my mom, Chuck and his mom. After the ceremony, we went out to dinner with friends. The minute we got home, there was a case on our doorstep and it turned out to be our first case of vodka.
Q. Why did you name it Lambda Vodka.
RICHARD: During the Stonewall rebellion, there was this organization that used the Greek symbol to signify gay liberation during that time. It was technically the first symbol used before the gay rainbow flag. That’s where the term Lambda used in the gay community came from.
Q. What was it like working on Lambda Vodka from its inception to now?
RICHARD: It’s exhausting.
CHARLES: It really challenged our relationship. We really didn’t have any experience as business owners creating spirits. We were freshly married, starting this business and we don’t have any mentors to speak to on this. Gay marriage was just starting. We didn’t know a lot of young Black guys who were in long term relationships and we didn’t know Black people who owned liquor brands, so it’s kind of like we were trying to navigate all these avenues with no roadmap. Those first years were very challenging for us, but you know, we communicate really well.
RICHARD: There was literally a certain point where Charles sat me down and he said “we have to get an understanding of the roles we are going to play with this.” Basically what he meant was, “I’m going to run this and you are going to do as I say and I don’t want any issues with it. (laughs) Because you can’t have two Alpha males trying to run a business and make decisions on a business. It’s not going to work. You need to have the dominant and you need to have the submissive; that’s the only way it’s going to work.” He took the reigns on the vodka and made all the marketing and branding decisions. He consulted me. It wasn’t just like he did everything and told me to shut the hell up. We collaborated, but he was the final say. That worked out actually. Before that decision was made, we were at each other’s throats. In my mind, I was like “you want to use our money to do this. This is fifty fifty. You’re not going to be the deciding vote,” but I had to fall back.
Q. You’re married, have a liquor brand, what made you decide to open a lounge?
CHARLES: Musa, when Ricky and I initially got together, he always wanted to open a lounge. He wanted something like his stomping ground ChiChi’s in the village. We were at a point with the liquor brand where we couldn’t quit our jobs to push this because it wasn’t making enough money to push on its own, so how can we generate additional income for the liquor? And one of the guys, said “let’s open a bar.” So, I spoke to Ricky and he was all for it. That guy wasn’t able to follow through, so my husband and me, we decided to go ahead and open a lounge.
Q. What has been the response in Harlem since you opened Lambda Lounge?
RICHARD: We’re not surprised at the response of the lounge. The following that we’ve gotten from the vodka let us know that we weren’t going to have an issue getting people in there. What I can say is, we didn’t anticipate how much support we were going to receive. Honestly, if we had anticipated it, we probably would have gotten a bigger place. It’s been an amazing experience. We’ve gotten an overwhelming number of people from all over the place. We had a guy here from Africa who heard about us. He read an article while in Africa and when he came to the U.S. he had to come to this place. We are reaching people across the world. It’s a surreal feeling.
Q. What is your advice to small business owners doing business during a pandemic? What are some of the challenges?
CHARLES: I majored in marketing in college. I remember one of my teachers saying, “satisfy the needs of your consumer”, so as a small business owner during COVID, I would say you need to find a product or service that’s going to satisfy consumers during this time. If it’s going to be a liquor, you can put a twist on it with say, COVID sales, or if you don’t know what you want to do, create a hand sanitizer. You always have to satisfy the needs of your consumer in any industry.
RICHARD: I can honestly say, hold your breath. (laughs) The one thing I can say that has been the most trying thing for us is the uncertainty, not knowing what is next. If we had a set plan, it’s better to navigate that, but the constant changing of rules in order to be compliant…the opening, the closing, it’s extremely difficult, especially for a restaurant. People don’t realize that restaurants are bearing the burden in a situation like this. We literally have a government that is singling us out as basically the reason for the climb in numbers of COVID cases, so when they are looking to shut things down in order to alleviate the numbers, it seems as if restaurants, bars, the eating and drinking establishments are the first places they look. If you have a business, be compliant. If staying open is something you can do, try to adapt to the situation. Cut back where needed. You’re gonna have to save some money because we don’t know what the future holds. Stock pile as much as you can, It’s going to require a lot of discipline and you know…just pray. (laughs)
Q. What advice would you give to young Black LGBTQ persons struggling to find their place in society?
RICHARD: Open your eyes and look. Sometimes we allow our situation and circumstances to blind us to what’s going on around us. There is a wave going on right now and I feel that people who are in situations like that unfortunately don’t have courage to open their eyes to see what’s going on around them. There are a lot of influential people out there who can paint a better picture for them. They just need to look. It’s hard and I don’t want to give the impression to anyone that what we are going through has not been a struggle. We fought through what these young people are fighting through now. We’ve been through it. It’s hard to tell them what to do because one thing I’ve learned is that experience is everything. You’re going to experience good and bad. We are all going through it. Take it in stride and push through it. It’s not going to be easy, but at the end, it will all pay off.
CHARLES: There is a tribe out there for all.
VIEW LIVE WITH RICHARD & CHARLES of LAMBDA VODKA:
Cover photo and editorial: Diane Allford
Founder and Editor-in-Chief: Musa Jackson
Creative Director: Paul Morejon @paulmorejon
Copy Editor: Marcia Fingal @marciafingal
Shot on location at Lambda Lounge : @lambdaloungeny