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New Milwaukee Junction Coffee Shop Tries to Build Community Despite Physical Distance

The Gathering Coffee Co. opens on Saturday, August 29

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A barista in a tank top stands behind the counter at Gathering Coffee Co. looking out towards the windows where a man wearing a black face mask is standing.
Gathering Coffee Co. opens in Milwaukee Junction on Saturday, August 29.
Emily Steffen [Courtesy photo]
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

When Emily Steffen originally set out to establish an espresso bar inside a building on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit, she envisioned building a “third place” — the kind where community members from the surrounding neighborhoods could come together to make art while drinking great coffee. But in March, a month out from the anticipated opening of the Gathering Coffee Co., the pandemic swept through the city of Detroit drastically altering how people interact in communal settings. This Saturday, August 29, Steffen will attempt to open her cafe under those new principles of social distancing, mask wearing, and regimented sanitizing procedures all while trying to foster that kind of community space she had hoped to achieve pre-COVID.

“We have to remind ourselves there is no certainty anymore, so you have to just take things day by day and learn to not be like reactive to them,” Steffen tells Eater. “Because we can’t really expect any form of consistency or certainty anymore, and we just kind of have to roll with that.”

In the months after novel coronavirus put a temporary halt to her construction and opening plans, Steffen considered how to preserve some of her vision while providing customers with a safer coffee experience. The Gathering Coffee Co. now features a variety of different service options: Customers can order drinks in-person as they normally would, following the guidelines placed on the floor up to the counter where a barista can take the order and payment manually from behind a plexiglass screen. Alternatively they may order online through the cafe’s Square app or use a QR code to access the menu on the cafe’s newly installed walk-up window to place orders outside for window service.

When it opens, the Gathering will offer limited socially-distanced indoor seating for eight people and 10 seats on the patio with eight feet between tables. As is mandated by the state, customers will be required to wear their masks when not seated to eat and drink. Each dine-in patron will also be provided with laminated instructions that they return to the counter when they’re finished, notifying the staff that their table needs to be cleared and sanitized.

On the menu, Gathering customers can expect everything from tea lattes to drip coffee. “Our menu was really created to meet someone who is a coffee connoisseur or someone who has zero experience in coffee or someone who enjoys a really good drip,” Steffen says. The cafe will use beans from Populace Coffee as well as single origin coffee for pour-overs from Stovetop Roasters in Ann Arbor. Beans will also be available for sale. Customers will have the option to take everything to-go with the exception of the build-your-own latte — an experiential drink where Gathering provides beakers filled with steamed milk, flavored syrup, espresso, and tonic water for patrons to play with.

The shop is also carrying Rishi tea out of Milwaukee and tea from Brandywine Coffee Roasters in Delaware. Gathering will brew loose tea as well as using it in several tea-based drinks such as the Foggy Day, an ice tea latte using black herbal tea, maple whipped cream, and vanilla simple syrup. Customers can also purchase several types of toast as well as pastries and doughnuts made by bakers at Rose’s Fine Food.

People in masks hang framed art on the walls behind a wooden coffee bar at Gathering Coffee Co.
Gathering Coffee Co. will serve as a community art and event space.
Emily Steffen [Courtesy photo]

One of Steffen’s goals has been to make sure that the cafe is inclusive. Last year, when Eater spoke with Steffen about what that might mean functionally within the cafe she had described a pay-what-you-can menu. However, to streamline the payment process, Gathering will instead offer a “suspended coffee” program, where patrons can pay for a $4 beverage for a customer to order at a later date. Steffen says that $4 will be enough to cover most things on the menu. It’s a format that’s been rolled out at other local restaurants in Detroit, including Sister Pie and Pizzaplex. “No matter what someone’s economic background is, I want everybody to be able to have accessibility to our space and just know that they’re seen and embraced,” Steffen says.

While Steffen has a background in coffee, she’s most passionate about the community art aspect of the Gathering, which shares a building with film production company Eightfold Collective. The cafe was originally designed to provide space for photography classes and dark room development. The classes are on hold for now, but people with experience in photo development can still rent the dark room at-cost through the shop.

Gathering will also continue to host socially distanced community events including poetry readings and Self Care Sunday with LaMaria Grace, an event held on the last Sunday of every month that uses art to discuss mental and emotional health. Steffen says that the cafe will use social media platforms like Instagram Live to improve community access to events due to capacity restraints during the pandemic.

Steffen says it’s important that the cafe still serve its role as a third place. “We will do everything that we can still offer people opportunities to create in our space and to have these conversations and to have these types of community events.”

Gathering Coffee Co. Menu

Gathering Coffee Co. is located at 2831 E Grand Blvd.; once open, the shop will offer service 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday; visit the cafe and ask for Emily or email to reserve the dark room.

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4458 Vernor Highway, , MI 48209 (313) 757-4992 Visit Website

Populace Coffee

1509 Broadway St., Detroit, MI

Sister Pie

8066 Kercheval Avenue, , MI 48214 (313) 447-5550 Visit Website

Rose's Fine Food

10551 East Jefferson Avenue, , MI 48214 (313) 822-2729 Visit Website

Gathering Coffee Co.

2831 E Grand Blvd. , Detroit, MI Visit Website