25 years in business! It's surreal to consider that The Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company has reached this milestone and to look back at just how much the local coffee culture has changed over those years!
Lisa and I made the risky decision 25 years ago to leave our comfortable corporate careers to pursue my entrepreneurial dream. It was a leap of faith, inspired by our roots. With big dreams and limited resources, Great Lakes Coffee was literally launched from our garage!
The company was originally imagined as the merging of our backgrounds and as a reflection of our lifestyles and passions. Lisa grew up in an Italian immigrant family on the east side of Detroit. Home-brewed espresso was a staple of her family life, long before coffee bars emerged as a cultural norm. Her professional experience was in the logistics and customer service industries. I grew up in Seattle, with entrepreneurial roots in my family spanning three generations. My great grandfather was an entrepreneurial pioneer in the farming and shipping industries in the Great Lakes region. My grandfather and my father each shared that same entrepreneurial passion. My professional experience was in the consumer products and beverage industry.
Inspired by the expanding popularity of espresso-based coffee bars in Seattle in the early 90s and the cultural connection of this lifestyle trend with Lisa’s Italian heritage, the idea to bring European and Seattle-style coffee culture to the Detroit/Great Lakes region was launched. At that time, there were no Starbucks to be found anywhere within the region, and espresso machines could only be found in genuine Italian restaurants and a handful of independent coffee bars – most of which were in a sad state of repair. Barista skills were virtually non-existent back then.
We filed Articles of Incorporation on February 24th, 1994 and moved quickly to form importing and distributing relationships with prominent European-based coffee roasting and espresso equipment manufacturing companies. We then travelled extensively throughout Europe to immerse ourselves in the European coffee culture and completed intensive technical service and barista skills certification at our suppliers’ factories in Milan and Torino.
Upon our return to Detroit, we gathered our collective life savings and launched our new business publicly at the 1994 Michigan Restaurant Show under the name, Espresso Source International. On the back of our business cards, our tagline read, “Integrating the passions and traditions of Europe’s finest products with the contemporary American coffee culture.” With that mission in mind, we ventured out to promote and build the café culture that is now a lifestyle norm for many people in this region.
Our story is a testimony to family, friends, community, and our cultural roots. My retired father was our first service manager. My mom answered phones and helped unload trucks that would stop at the end of our driveway, wheeling cases of product into our garage. We sub-leased a small showroom from family friends to host coffee tastings and equipment demonstrations. Lisa’s father was our first Roastmaster. Other family members and friends often helped with catering events and garnering support within the local community. When the larger marketplace was slow to embrace the new espresso-based coffee culture we were promoting, we survived by supplying clients that shared an ‘old world’ espresso heritage and by providing espresso catering services for weddings.
In 1999, we made the decision to move forward into local coffee roasting. After substantial research and planning, we purchased and installed advanced roasting and packaging equipment, and The Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company brand was launched. Our commitment was to provide locally-roasted and ultimately fresh specialty-grade coffees for our clients – a commitment that has never changed. As the Great Lakes Coffee brand grew in volume and popularity, we decided to gradually morph the company name from its former identity as Espresso Source International to its current identity as The Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company.
We launched our flagship coffee bar in Midtown Detroit in the summer of 2012 at the corner of Woodward and Alexandrine – serving as a meeting place and social hub for the Midtown community. Our goal with this venture was to provide an exceptional and authentic coffee experience for our guests, allowing them to connect in-person with our brand. By the end of 2012, a second location was added inside the Maple Theater at the corner of Telegraph and Maple in Bloomfield Hills. Several years later our Cobo Center location was launched, allowing us to introduce the Great Lakes Coffee brand to an even broader audience of local, national, and international guests.
Over the years, The Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company has endeavored to remain at the cutting edge of the ever-evolving local coffee culture. We have supported the launch of countless local independent coffee bars and have implemented enhanced coffee programs across a wide range of wholesale accounts. We launched the broad scale distribution of Italian-roasted espresso coffee in the region long before local roasting became popular. We introduced super-automatic espresso machine technology to fill the gap when a skilled barista workforce had not yet evolved. We substantially raised the bar for espresso quality and barista training at a time when this was virtually non-existent. With the launch of our local roasting operation, we led the market into certified specialty-grade coffees, Fair Trade certified coffees, USDA organically certified coffees, micro-lot single-origin coffees, ethical sourcing, and Farmer Direct purchasing. We were the first ‘Third Wave’ commercial roaster to bring specialty coffee to the Eastern Market and to open a genuine ‘Third Wave’ coffee bar in Detroit. We implemented Cold Brew coffee on-tap with the opening of our Midtown café in 2012, long before Cold Brew became a staple of café culture. We were early adopters of coffee/beer collaborations with local breweries and more recently have initiated a coffee/hard cider collaboration with our friends at Blake Farms. And based upon our internal company culture that embraces innovation, there is much more yet to come!
We’ve come a long way since the days we operated out of our garage in 1994, but we have always remained true to our values for relationships, excellence, authenticity, and passion. And now as we celebrate our 25th anniversary, I am proud to say we have never lost sight of our roots – which are forever grounded in family, friends, the community we serve, and the cultural heritage that has inspired us. As we look to the future, we will continue to pursue our original vision to positively shape and advance an ever-evolving and always-welcoming coffee culture within the Detroit community and throughout the Great Lakes region.