A.J. O’Neil is boldly going where others in this area have perhaps gone many times before, but bringing with him a fresh new brew, and a book, too.
From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Nov. 21, at Bueche’s Food World, 400 N. Ortonville Road, the Hazel Park resident will be ready to share some java and inspire locals with the story of how he went from roofing contractor to cafe owner, ‘Danny Boy? marathoner, and finally C.B.O. (chief bean officer) of Detroit Bold Coffee Co.
‘I am very proud that we rest on our own laurels,? said O’Neil. ‘All we did was try to bring attention back to working class folks who are the backbone of our community.?
A 22-year career as a roofing contractor came crashing down for O’Neil when as he was finishing a job one day and a storm blew the ladder he was on off a roof. Doctors advised him to find another line of work and in 2007, he and a friend purchased a Ferndale cafe.
‘Boredom and sheer tomfoolery? led O’Neil to the open mic at his cafe one night and he sang ‘Danny Boy,? an Irish and sentimental favorite with special meaning. He had sang the ballad at his father’s funeral many years before. Now, he began singing it regularly. When he was heckled the third or fourth week by a man who wanted to know why he couldn’t learn another song, O’Neil explained it was his father’s song and suggested they all sing together to put it to rest. A Detroit Free Press reporter, a customer at the cafe, suggested a ‘Danny Boy? marathon and publicized the event. The New York Times picked up the story. Soon O’Neil was giving interviews with international reporters. The 50-hour ‘Danny Boy? marathon commenced at his cafe on March 15, 2008, carrying on to St. Patrick’s Day March 17, and included hundreds of singers, all varying in the ability to carry the tune, from local residents to business owners to politicians, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
‘It was nothing I could have ever imagined,? recalls O’Neil. ‘I thought we had a Guinness record. They have have two ways to do things? you can pay and get a record right away or send for snail mail and wait for a reply. In December 2008, they emailed and said they didn’t have a category for a single song marathon and didn’t want one. They suggested we go for the world’s longest concert.?
On that same day, a customer came into A.J.’s Cafe and told O’Neil he was losing his job in the auto industry. He suggested O’Neil use his celebrity at the cafe for the greater good, offering free coffee to customers who would pledge that the next new car they bought would be a Ford, Chrysler or GM. With a sense of responsibility for people hurting in the recession, O’Neil put that plan in action, and also began planning the longest concert.
He recruited musicians of all kinds? garage bands, open mic’ers, auto workers with bands on the side. They could perform any music they liked and from March 17- April 1, 2009, a 288-hour long concert took place at A.J.’s Cafe, with 3-minute set changes.
‘We got all the documentation and we won,? said O’Neil. ‘We were open 24-hours a day, we had to plead with people to be in the audience in the middle of the night night and bribe them with coffee. It was crazy. When we got the record, we felt vindicated. We were called patriots and the heads of the auto world descended on our cafe. Then people started to look at Detroit in a different way.?
‘In sunlight or in shadow? detailed the story of O’Neil and his cafe and was published in 2009. Three years later, when O’Neil’s lease was up, he decided to change his career track once more. Detroit Bold Coffee Co. was born.
O’Neil recruited Becharas Brothers Coffee, a roaster for the hotel, restaurant and service industry in Highland Park, to roast a new, robust coffee and package it in bags that would tell the Detroit coffee story.
O’Neil promotes his brew as coffee for ‘hard-working humans? and he has worked hard to make it a success. Detroit Bold Coffee is now found in Meijer, Kroger, and independent grocery stores including Bueche’s. The company offers five different blends, a light, medium and dark roast, as well as decaffeinated and a Christmas roast.
Detroit Bold Coffee is approaching 250,000 bags sold, with 8-ounce bags available in stores, while 1-pound bags can be ordered online at detroitboldcoffee.com. ‘D-cups? are available for Keurig coffee makers.
O’Neil believes in building success locally.
‘Take care of your community first and the rest will take care of itself,? he said. ‘There is a palpable excitement going on in our town… At my heart, I’m a community activist who has a coffee company and see this as far outreaching the coffee. Detroit Bold is an awakening, pun intended. We’re ready to take the next generation and show the world there is a bit of Detroit in all of us. We understand grit, hard work, and determination.?