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Great Lakes Coffee at One: "A City of Connected Stories"

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When Midtown's Great Lakes Coffee opened in June 2012, it felt like an odd time and odd place to debut a coffee shop. In the middle of a humid Michigan summer, on a street corner across Woodward Ave. from the Hutzel Womens' Hospital, there were questions about who would frequent a coffee shop just right then and there.

The answer, one year later, is pretty much everyone and at pretty much any time of day. "I know a lot of people in the city and in the neighborhood," said GLC partner and roast master James Cadariu in a recent interview with Eater Detroit. "But I've been very surprised by the number of people who come in here that I didn't already know."

That broad mix of people — coupled with the so-called Institute for Advanced Drinking's diverse menu of coffee, beer, wine, cocktail and food — has made that unlikely coffee shop a prime meeting spot, popular bar and second home for all kinds of Detroiters, and tapped Cadariu and his partners into a virtuous cycle of small business support across the city. Cadariu talked about challenges of the first year of GLC, the future of the company and how the city's many stories help shape his future business plans.

In a general sense, how has this first year been for you?It's been very strong. Summer is a weird time for coffee, but I think we were innovative in having cold brew on draft. In the roasting facility, we had these peaks and valleys of people being in the right mood for coffee — it's the same for restaurants. Coffee sales have been incredible, and the food as well. It's all just unpredictable.

People who come in to the store are often surprised by the food menu.Yeah, people don't realize it. I was originally aiming for the Park Bar model — the embedded model, with Bucharest Grill right there. I'm sure you've seen the 'closet we call a kitchen' note on the menu; that's what it is. We didn't build out for a stove. It's all in there, and there's an HVAC unit in there. We've managed to grow the food sales quite a bit.

What's surprised you in this first year of business?Having spent my whole life here, and a lot of time in the Midtown neighborhood — I have three degrees from Wayne — I thought it would be a bit like that old idea that there's about 100 or 150 people who go between three or four places all the time. But the number of people who've come in here that I didn't know has been remarkable. I think we're part of growing that overall pie.

Talk more about that pie. What is different about the Detroit small business community? It feels like people are doing a better job creating community around their businesses.I was a part of the Gourmet Underground Detroit. We wanted to try and create local demand as a way to change the way places were doing things. There are so many restaurants or bars here with a lovely interior, a lovely exterior, great places — but their food is frozen in time. We were frustrated, and wanted to use our economic demand to make things happen. Instead, you have people like Dave K[wiatkowski] opening up Sugar House. So we've been pushing that on a very small scale. Compared to New York, where the restaurant business is such a competition, locally it's all less a business then it is a lifestyle. We're friends, we help each other and go to each other's places . Jacques at Green Dot, Chef Andy [Hollyday, formerly] of Roast — none of these guys are trying to start franchises or make a bunch of money. They are just doing what they like, being innovative in their own way.

What's been difficult about this year? I think it's normal to have certain expectations about what a coffee shop is. We've been trying to find that balance between people in here studying and using the Wifi, and people who want to come in and socialize and have a good time. It's either the library model, of coming in and studying in quiet, or the European model, where it's raucous, a place to share ideas and socialize with others. The fact that we have entertainment, beer, cocktails — we cater to a lot of different tastes at a lot of different times. I love that I can come in here at 9 a.m., and there are 30 people having meetings. We've joked about renaming ourselves the Detroit Meeting House.

What's been the most rewarding part of this year? I love Detroit more than anything. To be able to see people in a space, to be a part of a growing community space on the oldest paved road in the country — business is all about people. Nothing is better than coming in here and shaking hands with lots of people. Detroit is full of all this great history, all these great stories and I think it's great to have the chance to try and hear some more of them.

What's next for the space? What else is in the works? 2014 is definitely a year of growth. 2013 is a year of stabilizing, but we're looking forward to growth next year. We're opening a spot in a the Mindy Lopus bakery that's set to open in Grosse Pointe on Kercheval, which we're excited about. Hopefully the bread is good — we need more good places for bread.

How will the opening of the Woodward Garden complex next door change your business?Since I was down here in the 1990s at Wayne, this is the most growth in the city I've seen. There are so many development plans in the works. Our area here, for example, is going to definitely be an entertainment district. With the DSO, the Majestic Theatre and the future Garden Theatre, there's going to be a lot right here that's all walkable. And with some other residential development, we're looking at the possibility of having 200 residential units all within one block of us. That's going to change a lot.

Detroit's independent coffee shops get written about by national news outlets with some degree of incredulity. How do you interpret that? With bankruptcy, with all this change, Detroit has become a story in itself. It's up to us, up to all us to tell the best story we can.

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