The Wow Factor: How One Ambitious Startup is Shaking Up Detroit's Coffee Culture
It’s an unusually sunny and warm afternoon in downtown Detroit as I stroll through 1001 Woodward Avenue. Beyond the towering glass doors and glimmering black marble exterior, lies one portion of the winter pop-up markets sprawled around the area. I make my way beyond rows of clothing, jewelry and art vendors to the bar situated in the back of the space to the black bar near the windows. The aroma of freshly roasted coffee intersperses with the buzz of conversation and the faint tunes of pop radio in the background. Working behind the coffee counter is more than just a young, blond barista roasting, grinding and pouring; the figure is Luke Kirtley, owner and founder of the city’s freshest, most ambitious start-up: coffeehaus.
Luke is a man on a mission. Contrary to his laid-back, friendly demeanor and young face is tremendous drive and ambition. He started a coffee roasting company from nothing, with nothing, and now seven months later is on the road to greater success. He has a background in design and had a stable job in marketing. However, the second life got stale Luke had other ideas. While he is still working on his degree at Grand Valley State University, he decided to take the leap of faith and start his own café focused on specialty coffees. “I honestly knew nothing about coffee when I first started,” he tells me with a laugh, “People would ask me these in-depth questions about coffee, and I had no idea what to say.” As most great business minds do, Luke figured it out on his own. “There was a two-month period where I would just sit and research for hours and hours everything about coffee and the industry. I wanted to learn everything, I couldn’t truly start on this mission before I knew it all.” Not one for half-assing ideas, or monotony, Luke has swiftly grown his company since those days at the library. Since last July when he registered the domain, Luke and his team have opened a counter inside clothing store/community hub Détroit is the New Black, became the sole supplier of coffee to Shinola, nabbed a spot in the winter pop-up markets downtown, and are expanding at dizzying rates.
Luke’s core idea is to promote special coffee from all over the globe. “Coffee is so much more than what is in your cup. It’s cultural,” he explains, “Each cup of coffee has been handled and considered by so many different people, and their end goal is exactly this: for you to enjoy that cup and its complex flavors.” Indeed, there are complex flavors. One simply cannot judge what all coffee tastes like based on what comes out of a Keurig in their breakroom. Nor should they consider the “specialty” roasts at Starbucks special at all. Sitting down and enjoying a delightful cup from coffeehaus is an experience. Each coffee depending on region, method of preparation, and/or time of roasting, can drastically differ in the flavor profile and notes. “Big coffee places don’t do it right, like us independent shops. For example, I know most places roast their beans a few days before the batch is delivered to the store. Coffee loses a lot of its finer flavor about 8 hours after it’s roasted, which is why we do it on the day. It’s just one of those finer details that can make a coffee truly special,” Luke explains. One sip, and everything he says about fruits, roast timing, washing, drying and flavor notes all start to become clear. The Ethiopian smells and tastes like blueberries, because the beans are dried with the coffee fruit on the bean. The coffee from El Salvador really does evoke flavors that are comparable to honey and caramel. It’s all true, and it’s all just coffee. The farmers who have cultivated and picked this product put tremendous effort and consideration into their crop, and Luke and his team are making sure their hard work isn’t in vain. “It’s about that ‘Wow factor.’ We want to turn doubters into enthusiasts,” Luke states, “I just want people to sip it and ask, ‘Why? Why does my coffee taste this way?’”
The team is not just stopping at making their pour-overs and cold brews taste the way nature intended; there are various special concept drinks on their menu as well thanks to Adam Campau, the culinary director. When Adam is not manning the counter, he spends his time conceptualizing these creative coffee concoctions. Beverages such as the Coffee Soda, which involves the coffee reduced into a syrup with sugar, mixed with sparkling water and topped off with orange essence. The taste is surprisingly sweet, smooth, and sultry with a strong note of citrus. My eyes widen as I take a sip. How the hell is there coffee in this? Additionally, there is the Cold Fashioned, a coffee-infused take on the classic Old-Fashioned cocktail. Coffee and bourbon are reduced together, then mixed with bitters, sugar cubes, and an orange peel. The resulting mocktail is unique, and nearly indescribable: silky and almost chocolatey. How in the WORLD is there coffee in this?! Reactions similar to mine are exactly as Luke and Adam intended. The goal is to inspire awe with every sip, and coffeehaus has done just that.
While the collective’s main focus is to be purveyors of delicious and unique coffees, there are other tertiary motivations behind the project. As it should be with new businesses in the information age, coffeehaus is committed to conducting business in a way that promotes social justice. With coffee being one of the most sought-after commodities in the western world, comes the unfortunate truth that there are many corrupt business practices on the part of the major players in the industry. The team at coffeehaus only sources their beans ethically, through fair-trade and direct-trade practices. They pay for health benefits for their Mexican farmers and contribute to a scholarship fund for their farm in Ethiopia, which is 70% women. They’re also planning a trip to Costa Rica to meet the farmers face-to-face and experience the farm. Great tasting coffee is important, but humanitarian ideals are never to be overlooked.
Luke and the coffeehaus team are an embodiment of the current zeitgeist of the city. They are a young, savvy, and energetic collective fueled by passion, and executing with skill and style. Their ambition is just as admirable as the product they serve. As I left the 1001 Woodward building, bottle of cold brew in hand, I couldn’t help but feel excited. Their entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, ingenuity, story and vision for the future is incredibly inspiring. I look forward to any time I may have to duck into the DITNB flagship to sit down, have a coffee and chat. I implore the reader to do the same. Luke and the team bring so much more than coffee to the table, and it is truly refreshing.