Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Always Brewing Detroit: Coffee & Community on Tap

Metro Detroit’s ubiquitous independent coffee shops and requisite open mic nights seemed to hit their stride in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. However, high rent, corporate competition, and a myriad of other reasons have led to fewer options and the loss of neighborhood gems like AJ’s Cafe (Ferndale), Bittersweet Coffee House (Detroit), and Brazil Coffeehouse (Royal Oak). Enter Amanda Brewington and her aptly named startup, Always Brewing Detroit. Brewington brought her caffeine-infused business acumen and passion for community-building to Grandmont/Rosedale Park in 2012 as a pop-up, and again in 2013 as a permanent fixture.

I caught up with Brewington during a busy Thursday night between live musical performances and pour-over coffees to find out how the idea for Always Brewing Detroit became a reality, and how it is redefining the neighborhood coffee shop.

KT: As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always wanted to start a coffee house. Can you give us some background on where the coffee house idea came from?
AB: It actually came from a school assignment for my Honors English class, when I was 17. Our student teacher, Matt, told us to come up with a business idea and describe it. I described this place called “The Crawl Space” (because “The Basement” seemed too obvious, you know? Ha ha). It would be a coffee shop and community hangout during the day, and at night become a place for live music. After I wrote up the paper, Matt said, “If you ever open up a place like this, let me know!” Every day, I’m like, I need to find Matt, it exists now!

KT: Do you want to talk a little bit about the process of starting your own business?
AB: When I was 25, I quit my job, moved to downtown Detroit (when it was still semi-cheap to move downtown) and started waiting tables, with two days off per week so I could work on my business plan. Which, by the way, don’t Google “business plan”; it’s terrifying! I took a ten day class on how to write a business plan through the Michigan Small Business Technology & Development Center, and then I gave myself two months to write it… I got hooked up with TechTown’s Thrive One program. With their support, I set goals: to finish my business plan, find a location and find funding...

I got the funding, a $15,000 loan from TechTown and a $5,000 loan from Detroit Micro Enterprise Fund. As for the location, I literally drove around Detroit trying to find one.

KT: What made you choose the Grandmont/Rosedale Park neighborhood?
AB: I checked out the University District, but there wasn’t any parking, so I could not sign on to a Livernois location. Next, I checked out Southwest Detroit, but they already have a great coffee house (Cafe con Leche), and I did not want to be in competition. I did a request for proposal for a location in West Village where Harlequin Cafe used to be. Unfortunately, live music is a big part of my plan, and since the neighbors had complained about noise [from the prior tenant], that was out.

My mentor from TechTown actually had a meeting here [when it was a civic building] with the Executive Director of the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation, Tom Goddeeris. Tom said, “I wish we just had a coffee house we could meet at…” My mentor told him about me and my mission to open a coffee house, and I met with Tom to hear more about the area. Grandmont/Rosedale Park has a huge soccer league, baseball league, farmer’s market, the city’s oldest community theatre group, but they had no place to meet. It was kind of a no-brainer, but I decided to try a pop-up first.

KT: I noticed you also had a pop-up Spring Market recently, featuring goods by local artisans, what do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of the pop-up trend?
AB: So I think you should do a pop-up with intention. People do pop-ups because it’s a trendy thing right now, but why? You can do a pop-up to build your brand and clientele and practice selling your stuff (especially if you don’t have a storefront) or test out a location or a particular market. You have to know what your endgame is. You should always think one step ahead of where you actually are.

KT: Why do you think community support is so important to starting a business or non-profit specifically in Detroit?
AB: Because you know what we suck at in Detroit? Having people. We need to have people, and a community, you can build a relationship with. I try to retain, at a minimum, my customers’ first names and what they’re drinking. You have to know people and keep track. Tuesday mornings I get 10-25 retired people from the neighborhood and none of them order. It’s just “Hey, I’ll have the usual.”

KT: What does ABD offer that a coffee house chain does not?
AB: The personalized touch, the events, and being the community gathering place. This community gives it back, over and over, and I keep being shocked by it. I have one customer who comes in to use the conference room for her business, but she doesn’t drink coffee. She asked me the other day if I needed anything. I mentioned that an oval table would probably fit the space better, and she said, “Pick one out; I’ll buy it for you.” There are other examples like that. People just show up, and ask what we need. Humbled isn’t even the right word; I get chills. They want me to stay and be here a long time. It’s bigger picture stuff.

KT: What products do you serve, and what is your buying philosophy?
AB: Almost everything we carry comes from within a 15 mile radius from the shop, so there is a low carbon footprint. We stock Chazzano coffee, Eli tea, Guernsey milk, Chez Chloe lava cakes, Love & Buttercream cookies, Beautiful Soup soups, and Fresh Corner Cafe sandwiches.

KT: What does the future hold for Always Brewing Detroit? A franchise?
AB: Everyone is like, where’s the next shop? To me, “franchise” is a dirty word. What I see myself doing down the road is opening up other businesses on Grand River... There aren’t really any other place-making, meetup businesses around here.

Upcoming Events: Tuesday, May 20th: Craft Night at 6 p.m., Thursday, May 22nd: Open Mic Night from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday, June 3rd: Bring Your Own Board Game Night at 7 p.m., and Saturday, June 13th: A local Art Show all day. For more information, call (313) 879-1102 or e-mail

Hours: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesdays: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursdays: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturdays: 9 a.m. to Noon

Location: Always Brewing Detroit is located at 19180 Grand River Ave. in Detroit


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