Detroit’s AJ O’Neil Boldly Brews New Career Venture

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DETROIT – Members of the Metro Detroit community probably know AJ O’Neil, founder of Detroit Bold Coffee Co., as the owner and operator of AJ’s Cafe in Ferndale. In 2012, O’Neil closed the cafe to pursue a more robust future with his love for not just drinking coffee but also selling and producing it.

With the belief that Detroit’s economy can be supported by more than just the auto industry, he teamed up with Becharas Brothers Coffee of Highland Park, where O’Neil resides, and began roasting his brand of bean in 2007, just three blocks from the old plant.

“Detroit Bold was a very grassroots type of business that was made to take a stand on who we all are,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil has always been community driven and says a coffee business is a “quintessential conduit” to conversation. Naturally, he wanted to base his business here, in Detroit.

“The trial of Detroit over these last few decades – in the decay and crime and all the other things – is really exclusively attributed to the lack of opportunity,” he said. “No one can deny that that’s been a disinvestment over so many years. When you have people that couldn’t afford to leave or didn’t want to leave, staying and trying to make an opportunity out of little, you’re going to see things happen.”

The beans used in Detroit Bold are 100 percent Arabica, a high-quality bean that grows in higher elevations. Compared to the Robusta beans used in Folgers or Maxwell House, Arabica beans have a slightly lower caffeine content and are known to hold a stronger, richer flavor.

“I realized when I was working at AJ’s that we had a roaster that was quietly doing the work of keeping much of Michigan and the country caffeinated without anybody really realizing. As soon as I saw they were in Highland Park, I wanted to work with them (Becharas Brothers Coffee),” he explained.

O’Neil remembers how hard it was to open cafe and also maintain and pay the bills. He started the Million Bag March as a campaign to help raise funds to build community-owned cafes in some of Detroit’s more deserving neighborhoods.

Each bag of Detroit Bold is $10 a piece. Five dollars goes toward production costs and the other $5 goes directly into a fund to start up a cafe. Through the community outreach and networking he does at Eastern Market, O’Neil recently sold his 2,200th bag of coffee – a grand total of $12,000 to be donated to the creation of a community cafe.

“Just beneath the surface of this grime, grit, crime-ridden, dirty place that they call Detroit,” he said, “is the most friendly, wonderful, small town atmosphere that you’ll ever find. You get that here (Eastern Market) every week, but you get that every day in Detroit.”

With the funds gathered from this model, O’Neil believes that Detroit Bold can raise enough money to eventually open up three locations and serve as a franchise model to do this in challenged areas all over the country. He says his 10-year plan is very ambitious – and he’s only in year three.

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