About five years ago there was a coffee house in the Lafayette Park shopping plaza on the corner of E. Lafayette and Orleans. It was called Paris Café and it featured stale coffee and puck-like bagels that could break car windows, but at least it was THERE. And then it closed.
Since then that same shopping plaza has seen a lot of turnaround. The space that was once the café became a short-lived barbecue joint; it is now a Metro PCS retail outlet. Restaurants and nightclubs have come and gone. A first attempt at a grocery store failed, but a second attempt, Lafayette Foods, seems to be doing well. But still no coffee shop.
Enter Jordi Carbonell.
Carbonell, along with his wife Mellissa Fernandez, owns Café Con Leche, a comfy-cozy coffee house that has been in its current location on W. Vernor at Scotten since 2009.
Earlier this week Carbonell and Fernandez opened a second coffee shop in the Lafayette Park plaza. It’s a pop-up shop, and will remain open for only a month. With this Lafayette Park venture they’re testing the waters and employing a novel entrepreneurial concept of involving the community in their project.
“We had it in mind for years opening a second location in Detroit,” Carbonell says. “We wanted to be in Detroit and were looking for a neighborhood.”
The Right 'Recipe'
Lafayette Park appealed to them because of its distinct neighborhood appeal – a place where people are living and working, where there are schools, and where people seem invested in their community. He speaks of looking for another neighborhood in Detroit that had the right “recipe” as his location in Southwest Detroit, and he finds a lot of similarity between the communities.
“For my business prospect, they’re pretty similar. Both neighborhoods need that point of connecting neighbors.”
Before Detroit became the “new Seattle” with artisan roasteries-cum-coffeehouse hipster havens opening up on every corner, there were just a handful of homey coffeehouses that offered refuge to lost souls looking for a hot cup of joe and a WiFi connection. Café Con Leche was one of them.
Carbonell and Fernandez have built Café Con Leche’s reputation as a community coffee house, offering space for musicians to play, allowing their walls to be used to display works by local artists, and acting as a hub for community events. They regularly participate in fundraising events for nonprofit organizations, promoting other local businesses and otherwise acting as ambassadors themselves to the rich culture and busy neighborhoods of Southwest Detroit.
In looking to expand Café Con Leche with a second location, Carbonell and Fernandez identified the Lafayette Park plaza as a prime location in an ideal neighborhood but have not been able to reach an agreement on rent with the plaza’s owner. Then they found a short-term solution that suits both parties.
Taking a cue from Detroit’s recent onslaught of pop-up enterprises, Café Con Leche has opened their pop-up Café Con Leche del Este in the plaza in partnership with the Detroit Economic Growth, the Jefferson East Business Association, and other groups.
“Jordi and Melissa were interested in opening a coffee shop there and knew everyone in the community also wanted a coffee shop,” says Michael Forsyth, the growth corporation’s business development manager.
When an agreement on lease terms couldn’t be reached, Forsyth suggested they try the pop-up model. Forsyth heads the growth corporation’s recently-launched REVOLVE program, a neighborhood retail development effort that has already made headlines after the announcement of four permanent retail locations in Detroit’s West Village came on the heels of its pilot pop-up program in that neighborhood.
Forsyth believes that this pop-up concept is way for both parties to see what the demand is for the coffeehouse, what owners could afford to pay in rent based on sales, and if the coffehouse is a viable option as a tenant. Forsyth also believes that the advantages of the pop-up model go beyond a simple test run.
“It’s a great way to vet your business model and refine it and improve it. A pop-up is also such a great marketing and publicity tool,” he says.
For an entrepreneur, the opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t without taking a lot of risk or investing a lot of money is invaluable.
In keeping with Café Con Leche’s community-driven model, their pop-up project has been a group effort. In addition to the various local organizations involved, residents themselves are pitching in -- from painting the walls and donating furniture to bringing in children to paint the Dia de los Muertos papier mache skulls that decorate the space.
Even the bright yellow curtains that line the back wall were knitted by the ladies of the Lafayette Park knitting club.
“What we’re really trying to do is see if a community can create a coffee shop,” Forsyth said.
On the pop-up’s opening last Sunday, the place was packed. The stripped-down space was fully transformed in brilliant streaks of orange and yellow accented by photographs and paintings by local artists, as well as the children’s sugar skulls and cleverly-repurposed salvaged materials. Lafayette Park residents young and old, black and white all turned out to see the establishment.
Children played on the toy piano and raced Hot Wheels on the cement floor. Other Detroit movers and shakers from all over the city also stopped in, and when it became clear that Carbonell was overwhelmed with the number of people there to support him, a customer who was waiting in line jumped behind the counter to help.
It’s no surprise that the residents of Lafayette Park have rallied around this concept. The idyllic 78-acre enclave designed by famed architect Mies van der Rohe is praised for its minimalist modern design aesthetic as well as the serene park at the center of the planned neighborhood’s townhomes and high rises that are home to some 3,500 people. Lafayette Park is sort of its own idealized island and that’s precisely its attraction to many residents.
“That is one of the best parts of this whole pop up thing – you engage a community around the retail that’s missing and what they want,” Forsyth says. “They buy into it because they’re actually helping build this coffee shop and getting it going. It could not be any better than developing a relationship with the customer who’s helping you paint your store.”
Hatch Detroit Incubator
The pop-up model has already proven itself effective in terms of activating vacant spaces and determining the feasibility of new concepts. One of Detroit’s original pop-ups, the masculine housewares store Hugh, was the winner of the first Hatch Detroit competition in 2011 after two successful pop-up runs and will open its permanent location this month inside the new Auburn Building in Midtown.
If the pop-up Café Con Leche del Este does well it could turn into a permanent location, and maybe even kick-start the development of the other remaining vacant spaces in this surprisingly underutilized shopping center.
Café Con Leche del Este will be open until December 2.