Detroit Startup Scene: Gathering Coffee Co.
Tash Moore, entrepreneurial writer and founder of social media agency Catch-313, recently sat down with Emily Steffen, founder of Gathering Coffee Co., a new shop opening in the North End offering community with a side of espresso.
Tash Moore: What drew you to the coffee industry?
Emily Steffen: The opportunities it presented for me to serve people in a non-traditional way, a way that’s more personal. I realized, after my first couple of years in the industry, just how many people find their baristas one of the only forms of consistency in their day-to-day lives. I don’t take that responsibility lightly. My job goes far beyond making a product; it’s about creating an atmosphere, an experience, and an opportunity to show people they are valued. I also find myself on the receiving end of this. I can’t think of an industry I’m more passionate about.
TM: Welcome to the North End. What drew you to the area versus other supposedly hip parts of town?
ES: The needs the North End had and the way [the area] embraced the arts. I knew going into this project that I wanted to be placed in a lower-income area, one where we could fill a need and create accessibility, too. Sustainability is, of course, an extremely important part of running a business–you can’t uphold your mission if you don’t exist–but my heart has always been that the story of this business would be the stories of those we are serving, not the other way around. The North End doesn’t have enough gathering spaces for its community; coffee is scarce and, for some of our residents, not accessible–I wanted to be a part of changing that, by creating a space where important conversations could be had, community could grow and develop, and stories could be told.
TM: How to do you intend to make your coffee space a welcoming place in the neighborhood?
ES: Two ways: first, I believe creating a welcoming atmosphere begins before your doors are open. That being said, creating this type of atmosphere means you have to know what creates a sense of “welcoming” or “home” for others, and you can’t know if you don’t ask. Each Wednesday over the next 5-6 months, myself and one other team member will be intentionally going door-to-door to 2,100 [homes] within our one-mile radius to start asking those questions and listening to the stories, and to introduce ourselves to those in the neighborhood. I want to be respectful to those who are already there. I’m not looking to just come into the neighborhood out of nowhere; I want to slowly introduce this to the residents and understand the needs that we can meet through this type of business model.
The other way is through accessibility. I understand that there is a certain percentage of people who live in our neighborhood who wouldn’t normally be able to buy a coffee or an espresso-based drink, which is why we’ve crafted a give-back drink option and a minimal pay-what-you-want menu. Our traditional menu will have a variety of coffee, tea, and espresso-based beverages at a price you may see at other shops in town, but our pay-it-forward drink option allows anyone who comes in to be able to buy a coffee for someone else. On our wall, it will show our count, and if a resident who financially may not be able to afford a coffee comes in–[such as] someone who is home-free, a customer who forgets their wallet, etc.–if we have even one number up there, we are able to give the coffee away for free.
Let’s say there isn’t a number on the board, then we pull out our small pay-what-you-want menu for times like this; it will have a couple of drink options from a tea to hot chocolate that we will sell at cost, ranging from $0.25-$0.75. That menu won’t be out on the wall, but it will be available for our staff to pull out and offer.
TM: You’ve discussed inclusiveness in integrating into the North End versus colonizing the space. How are you working to ensure some of the baristas behind the counter look like the customers you want to bring to the counter?
ES: It’s important to me that our team is diversely represented and has an inclusive and service-oriented mindset. It is my intention to have at least one of our baristas be specifically from the neighborhood, and after opening, as the team grows, to continue to hire from the neighborhood and/or always specifically the city.
TM: Where do you see Detroit’s coffee scene evolving in the next few years?
ES: Detroit’s coffee scene is really special, because it’s still relatively new and the shops that are already here have done coffee extremely well. I see there being an already existing standard for coffee and atmosphere, along with the strive for creating impact and community as something that overall the city’s coffee scene will continue to evolve into. My hope is that over the next years that the coffee industry in Detroit will become known for its accessibility and inclusivity in all the shops’ neighborhoods. I see this shift already taking place and feel privileged to be amongst the incredible shops that are already here.
Tash Moore has covered the startup scene in Detroit for the past 5+ years. When she’s not looking for a good cup of decaf, she’s photographing, exploring, admiring architecture, or writing at the Room Project in the North End.