Mercury Rising

With its fresh approach, Mercury Coffee Bar perks up Michigan Avenue
Mercury Rising
Photograph by Kevin Netz

It troubled food activist and entrepreneur Todd Wickstrom that it was so easy to find liquor and fast food in Detroit, but fresh lettuce? That was a different story.

The founder of Heritage Foods USA and former partner at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor determined to do something about it.

Mercury Coffee Bar is the result, an upbeat oasis of fresh food, impeccable coffee, and smiling faces in the old Mercury Bar location on the corner of Michigan and 14th.

Bolstered by a diverse coalition of small investors, including Phillip Cooley of Slows BarBQ across the street, he completely transformed the space with the help of architect Andrew Zago. The first-floor space is awash in vibrant colors of magenta, sunny yellow, and brilliant blue, which accent a glossy background of white walls and ceiling. The back and front of the place are separated only by a counter.

The old bar sign was repaired and retained as a reminder of the age of the building, which dates back to horse-and-buggy days. There’s no bar, however, although Wickstrom and partners expect to be serving a carefully selected list of wine and beer early in the new year.

For now, coffee, tea, and sandwiches and salads made from fresh ingredients are enough to bring people in. It doesn’t take long for them to notice that the café is most unusual in its hardscrabble neighborhood.

It isn’t, however, one of those places that turns its back on the community. It reaches out to those who aren’t accustomed to salads of arugula and goat cheese, or coffee from beans ground to order. But it doesn’t neglect those who are familiar with those items.

“We decided to earn the right to do business in the community,” says Wickstrom.

“Every day, we listen to the customers. It’s a constant dialogue. We have a diverse customer base. It’s not all white hipsters.”

Mercury Coffee Bar is remarkable in many other ways, as well. For one, there is no microwave, no deep fryer, not even a stove on the premises. There is, however, an oven, for the roasting of vegetables for the soup and for baking the daily-changing array of lemon bars, scones, and cookies made by local baker Marta Garza, one of several employees from the neighborhood.

Only cured or smoked meats, including country ham, mole salami (made with some of the same ingredients as Mexican mole) and  soppresseta — all from artisan producers — are used.

Michigan products are emphasized, and when growing season arrives, Wickstrom hopes to use the produce grown by urban farmers as well as traditional farms.

Wickstrom calls the menu “understated,” and you’ll find no $14.50 sandwiches or $6 cups of espresso, even though the ingredients are hand chosen and of high quality.

In fact, panini and salads are all offered in two sizes, so that it’s possible to spend as little as $3 for a small roasted beet-and-spinach salad or $4 for half a spicy cheddar panino. The various coffees, even the cappuccinos and lattes, are all less than $5.

“There’s such a need for quality anything,” Wickstrom says.

He’s providing a good measure of it in his small corner of Detroit.

Mercury Coffee Bar, 2163 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-496-4000. Open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.