A coffee shop designed to emulate the old-school cafes of Paris has opened in the basement of a 19th mansion this summer in Midtown, just in time to greet a new wave of students headed to Wayne State University this fall. Cafe Sous Terre — at 445 W. Forest Ave. — is French for coffee underground, co-owner Reimer Priester tells Eater, and also happens to be the name of his favorite coffee shop in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina.
Customers take a few steps to the lower level, revealing a charming, midcentury aesthetic with a row of two-tops with banquette seating, a standing bar in one corner, and sea foam and green-colored accents throughout. A painting depicting Priester’s grandfather playing drums alongside jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie hangs on one wall.
Priester says he and two other business partners, who he did not name, first purchased the property in 2012 and had the upper levels renovated into Airbnbs, while the basement space was rehabbed to accommodate retail. The retail space was previously occupied by Detroit Bridal House until 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the shop’s closure. The vacancy gave Priester a chance to revisit a long-held dream of opening a cafe.
The menu here takes guests from daytime co-working or studying to evening meetups over cocktails or wine — with a full lineup of espresso drinks, teas, a limited offering of sandwiches and baked goods, as well as seasonal cocktails, wine by the glass or bottle, and a brief list of beers. Handling the front of the house and beverage program is general manager Joel Jones, who previously worked as a barista and roaster at Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters and as a product developer for Weiss Distilling Co. in Clawson.
Jones tells Eater that he designed the drink menu to not only incorporate aspects of French culture, but also to touch on the ways that French culture is represented elsewhere such as in New Orleans or the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. For the hazelnut mai tai, for example, he uses rhum agricole — a sugarcane juice rum originally distilled on the islands of the French-colonized Caribbean.
Cafe Sous Terre is Priester’s first foray into the food and drink industry, but it’s not his first experience with development in Detroit. Priester was involved in a contentious landlord-tenant dispute on the city’s eastside that gained media attention.
In January 2021, a lawsuit filed by three Detroiters in the U.S. Eastern District Court of Michigan alleged that defendants Nokel LLC, DVI 2 LLC, Villages Property Management LLC, and their co-owners, Alex DeCamp and Reimer Priester did not lease properties it owned in or nearby the city’s Islandview neighborhood to Black prospective tenants. The plaintiffs, two who are white and one who identified as Asian, alleged that the defendants deprived them from living in a racially diverse community. The case was ultimately dismissed in July 2021 by Senior United States District Judge Bernard A. Friedman.
“We [tried to] meaningfully move the needle in the rehab that so much of Detroit needed and still needs,” Priester tells Eater in regards to the lawsuit. “At the time, it never occurred to us that these no-profit at the time and still [no-profit] ventures could be perceived as negative because we always did it for the right reasons.”
As for Cafe Sous Terre, Priester says he wants the space to serve as a gathering place for Detroiters of all backgrounds and that treats its employees fairly. The cafe currently has a staff of 10 employees and starting pay is $17, says Priester, plus shared tips.
Cafe Sous Terre is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesdays and 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.