AJ’s Music Cafe in Ferndale: ‘It’s like one big Facebook wall here’

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OU News Bureau

Looking for a place to have great food and a good time? OU News Bureau reporters have visited some distinctive eateries in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties to learn more about what these restaurants have to offer. Reporter Rachel Zynel visited AJ’s Music Café in Ferndale and talked with owner AJ O’Neil.
UPDATE FROM FEB. 18: AJ’s Music Café will close its doors after five years in business and a tradition of community outreach and involvement. AJ’s leaves behind a legacy that includes Guinness World Records for the longest “Danny Boy” Marathon — 50 straight hours of the song being sung — and the longest nonstop concert by multiple artists, lasting 360 hours.
“The Café is a building,” said O’Neil in a post to his customers on Facebook. “But, the true spirit of the people of AJ’s is everywhere.”
The café will close March 31 with one final show. O’Neil is currently running for United States Congress, with his grassroots movement, the Assembly Line Party, and will spend his time on the campaign.

Tell me about the history of this place.

I was a roofer, I fell off a roof. When the doctors told me to stay off of ladders, I was looking for something and this place kind of found me. Someone said, “Why don’t you open up a restaurant?” I knew I could cook soup. I was a good cook, so I thought I’d give it a shot. That’s how it started.
I saw “Seinfeld” when they had the Soup Nazi and I loved the idea of “no soup for you.” I wanted to have a sign that said, “Soup for You” when I was open and “No Soup for You” when I was closed. When I was opening in 2007, it was at the same time the real Soup Nazi was opening a restaurant in Birmingham, so we changed the name to AJ’s. No one would realize that the real name is Soup for You, LLC. You would see that on my checks. People freak out when they get a check and it says Soup for You.
Describe what it offers patrons.

We’re very healthy orientated. Healthy and delicious. We serve herbivore and carnivore; mostly we cater to a vegan crowd. Raw juices, vegan sloppy joes, vegan garden burgers, all local, all homemade. Last year was the first year we bought a lot of our produce from gardens in Detroit. Subdivisions abandoned trying to re-gentrify, it’s really great. Little places like this, we realize that we live in a cross-trickle economy, not trickle down. Customers are here because they have jobs and they can buy things. We like to support them back by buying what we can from them.

Why would someone want to come here?

Aside from getting good, healthy food they would have to come here because they’re thinkers and creative people. It’s more than just an eatery, it’s a community gathering place. It tends to create an atmosphere where people can think, they can exchange ideas. It’s like one big Facebook wall here. This used to be very common, to come and meet at your local coffee shop or diner and talk about important things in your community, like who got a job or who got married. It’s gotten impersonal. It feels good to come back from the Upper Peninsula with a recipe from my great-great grandmother and integrate it into my café. It’s very personal; people long for that. We’re very much in a herd mentality … to get in line at a fast food joint so they can take these things mechanically from somebody while they’re texting a message. Slowing down is a luxury. It’s hard to get people to realize that that’s part of the quality of life, pretty soon it slips away. I work a lot, I work hard, but I really appreciate a lot of the things like listening, talking. So that’s why people come here, because they feel like someone cares about them here.

What do you do that’s different from other places like this?

You can go right down the street and get a coffee anywhere. You’re always trying to reinvent the wheel in a restaurant. This is a very creative place; you actually live it. We’re known all over the world for activism and awareness for worker’s rights, things like that.
What’s the one thing everyone should order here?

You should always get the chili. It’s fantastic, it’s all vegan, vegetarian. You should try a wafflich. It’s a waffle sandwich with egg and cheese and meat. I call it the McCorprate-McAnswer-to-the-McBreakfast-McSandwich, for people who want to get a good, hearty, made-with-love sandwich for breakfast. And our smoothies, they say, are the best here.

How many people work here?

Four. My brother, Dennis, who’s been working with me for 25 years between roofs, and now he’s our chef; and Shay; and Paul, who’s the other worker; and myself.
Vinny Haddad, a graduate student at Wayne State University, enjoys AJ’s.

Why do you go to AJ’s? What is different about this place that makes you come back?

“Choosing where to grab a cup of coffee during the grind of a day almost doesn’t feel like a choice. With a Starbucks or an Einstein’s…always within a half mile of where you are, little niche places like AJ’s can get lost in the hubbub of everyday life. I am of the opinion that one of the best things we can do as consumers is choose to go to the wonderful, personable, locally run and stocked stores that are popping up more and more frequently. Not only does more of the money we spend at these shops stay in the neighborhood, but they make a helluva cup of joe. AJ’s … promotes ethically and sustainably grown coffee beans, as well as vegan options for those in the minority like myself who seek out and fail to find these menu options elsewhere.”

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