When Daisuke Hughes and his wife, Jess, opened the door of Astro Coffee for their first day of business at the coffee-demanding hour of 7:30 a.m. last July 12, they found a line of 30 people, all dressed in black, waiting at the Corktown café.
It might have been the most dramatic outpouring of support for the couple, but it certainly wasn’t the first time their neighborhood had rallied around. In addition to a fund-raising talent show that garnered a few hundred dollars in February 2010, all through the long process of rehabbing the sturdy brick building on Michigan Avenue, Hughes says people routinely showed up and asked, “What can I do?”
They pitched in as the place was put together — much like the beginnings of the neighboring Slows Bar BQ — with materials salvaged from old buildings in the area and a lot of volunteer help. Floor joists from a former pawnshop on the now-rebounding block are part of the décor, reclaimed floorboards (refinished to a dark gloss) are underfoot, and the brick walls of the circa-1880s two-story building have been scrubbed to their original rosy color.
An American flag from the days of 48 states hangs on one wall. And the menu is presented on a chalkboard wall behind the counter where coffee is brewed pour-over style, one very good cup at a time.
The couple met, appropriately enough, at Monmouth Coffee in London in 2004 when both worked there. Jess had come to London from her hometown of Glen Innes, Australia, and Dai (pronounced dye), an Ann Arbor native, had been living in New York before moving to London.
When the former Mercury Coffee Bar opened across the street from where Astro Coffee now does business, Hughes became Mercury’s head barista. That shop opened with much fanfare and looked attractive and promising, but closed after just four months.
Hughes wasn’t willing to give up. Thinking that some people probably believed Mercury’s failure “meant Detroit couldn’t have nice things,” he was determined to learn from mistakes and make a similar but “scaled-down” specialty coffee shop work.
Astro was two and a half years in the planning, and was helped not only by such neighbors as Phil Cooley of Slows, Dave Kwiatkowski of the soon-to-open Sugar House craft cocktail lounge next door to Astro, and landlord O’Connor Realty, but also by small-business owners in other parts of Detroit, including Dave Mancini of Eastern Market’s Supino Pizza.
The shop’s coffee beans come from Ritual and Sight Glass in San Francisco and Intelligentsia in Chicago. Astro also offers tea and San Pellegrino water. Hot chocolate is also served, along with a few baguette sandwiches.
Jess bakes the home-style cakes and cookies, including traditional Australian coconut-oats bars called Anzac. “They were the cookies mothers sent to their sons in World War II,” she explains.
And how does this transplanted Aussie feel about Detroit? “It has its moments,” she says. “You get out what you put in.”