AJ’S CAFE, FORMER FERNDALE HOTSPOT, TO REOPEN DOORS IN HIGHLAND PARK CHURCH BASEMENT
AJ’s Cafe, an iconic Ferndale, Mich., coffeehouse that happens to hold the Guinness record for the world’s longest concert (by multiple artists) closed its doors this March when its five-year lease came to an end. The spring farewell, however, was just the start of something new for owner A.J. O’Neil. After the cafe closed, he renamed his enterprise AJ’s Coffeeworks and began selling his own blend of coffee through an online store. Now he is planning to reopen his coffeehouse this August in Highland Park, Mich., an economically challenged municipality located inside the boundaries of Detroit.
Highland Park, which is better known these days for its struggling school system than its coffee, might seem like an odd choice to many — but not to O’Neil. He’s a native Highland Parker who hopes the relocation will help spur interest and investment in the city.
Highland Park was once a thriving industrial center that was home to Henry Ford’s first auto assembly line. O’Neil told The Huffington Post that its fate is emblematic of what’s now happening to the entire country.
“I maintain that ground zero for the economic challenges that this country faces all goes back to Highland Park, Michigan with the disinvestment of the assembly line there,” he said. “[It began] when the investment mentality took over and [manufacturers] said, ‘We don’t care where it gets built, we care how cheaply it’s built.’”
O’Neil is a proponent of what he calls “Cross Trickle Economics”, a theory which emphasizes that producers and workers are also customers and consumers.
According O’Neil, when the integral link between these categories is broken, divestment occurs and communities suffer. He sees his enterprise as one spoke in a huge wheel that will allow the city to get moving towards economic recovery.
His new cafe will open in the basement of St. Benedict’s Church in Highland Park. A regular open mic night, hosted on Wednesdays by Ted Berlinghoff, will take place in the church’s auditorium. O’Neil is renting the space from a social enterprise called Distributed Power. They are in turn subletting it from a charter school called Northpointe Academy, which is leasing from the church. The cafe will be sharing quarters with the Legacy News, a community newspaper, and a green jobs initiative called GELT (Green Economy Leadership Training).
Besides the new location, AJ’s Cafe will also take on a new name. Although he has not yet reached a final decision, right now he’s leaning towards “Soup for You.” The coffeehouse will serve a new all-vegan menu that will include raw juices and dishes like lentil soup, vegan chili and seitan reuben sandwiches. O’Neil wants to source as many ingredients as possible from local urban gardens, like Detroit’s Sunrise Farms and Highland Park’s Rhiza Farms. His coffee, which he is currently selling online, is roasted and supplied by the Becharas Brothers, a Highland Park-based company that once supplied the U.S. armed forces and has been in the bean business since 1914.
O’Neil is selling his brew under the name “Detroit Bold.” He’s excited about its potential.
“Our coffee heritage is second to none in Detroit. … People love the name Detroit. We’re enterprising, gritty, hardworking folk,” he said. “I aim to really use coffee to be one of the examples of this new economy.”
O’Neil is no stranger to hard work — or to drawing attention to the plight of Detroit workers and communities. A roofer by trade, he got into the cafe business literally by accident after he fell off a roof. He and his former partner Branden Reeves were considering opening a cafe, but the injury decided the matter for them. In 2007 the two set up shop in Ferndale, with Reeves handling the coffee and O’Neil making sandwiches.
The cafe started drawing crowds, but O’Neil said the rent was too high to make much of a profit. He said they were essentially breaking even — working for the landlord.
The launch of the business coincided roughly with the foreclosure crisis of 2008, and O’Neil became a casualty of the recession because of his injuries. Having to choose between his house or his business, he chose the business and moved in with his mother in nearby Royal Oak. Around this time, he even lost his business partner, who returned home to Arizona to tend to his ailing mother. But O’Neil saw the worth in the cafe, however, and kept it going.
“It wasn’t about me, he said, “It was what it meant to the community. … It started to be something that made a lot of impact on everybody.”
It’s this spirit that inspired O’Neil to begin his Assembly Line Concert, which he started as a tribute to autoworkers who worked for the Big 3 American auto manufacturers after speaking to a customer who’d lost his job. In 2009 O’Neil and hundreds of others earned a place into the Guinness Book of World Records after logging 288 hours of almost non-stop performance, according to Ferndale Patch. After losing the title in 2010 to a pizzeria in Atlanta, Ga., the cafe won it back in 2011, setting a new record of 360 hours. O’Neil certainly hopes to bring this energy to his new location when it opens on August 19. He promises the new cafe will continue the AJ’s Cafe legacy of great music, poetry and food.
“We’re in our humble beginnings,” he said. “We’re taking the great things we accomplished in AJ’s in Ferndale and simply moving it into a church basement.”