We have lift off: Corktown's Astro raises coffee bar to next level

It's week one and Corktown's just-opened coffee shop is already buzzing with familiar rhythms, memorized drink orders and a certain imperfect, storied aesthetic that makes it feel like it has been there for years.

Maybe that's because the much-anticipated Astro Coffee -- with its instantly epic coffee program and smooth white counter piled high with handmade pastries under clear glass cloches -- has been an extraordinarily long time in the making. Five years and six months, if you count when owners Daisuke Hughes and Jessica Hicks first met as employees at London's revered Monmouth Coffee Company -- a major source of inspiration for their own shop's rustic minimalism and philosophy of accessibility.

"It was the most natural specialty situation I've seen. I think in America, especially at that time, specialty meant more exclusive or more intimidating. (Monmouth) did a really good job of making it approachable," says Hughes. "It was the first time," adds Jess "I had seen a shop where everyone was equal, and there wasn't a strong hierarchy." Their experience informs the tenets of the couple's new business, ranking guiding principles like openness and friendliness as high as the quality of goods they painstakingly source.

"We don't want to be preachy and tell people what they're doing wrong," says Hughes, who's quick to clarify: "We're not hiding it either. We just don't want to shove it down anyone's throat." But one look at the giant floor-to-ceiling chalkboard -- with its hand-scrawled drawings and quippy sourcing explanations -- and it's clear there's plenty of foodie fodder for the craft community to geek out about: beans from Ritual (San Francisco), Counterculture (North Carolina), and Chicago's Intelligentsia; milk from Calder Dairy in Lincoln Park, produce from Grown in Detroit. But none of it feels pretentious or contrived. "It's just how things are done in Detroit," says Hicks. "It's about respecting where things come from without being elitist about it."

Astro hopes to do for coffee what the microbrewery culture has done for beer: expose folks to a variety of roasters, both national and regional, while cultivating a culture of community around it. The menu is a perpetually evolving best of the best -- a working experiment in sampling and discovery. But of course, you can stop by and grab a quick cup of whatever coffee they have handy, and no one will turn up his or her nose if you want to dump a generous spoonful or two of white sugar in it.

After their stint in London, the pair spent a year in Sydney together. Hicks, who stayed longer, was born and raised in a small town in Australia, where she owned and ran a café with her mom -- the ultimate training ground for the simple, grounded, veggie-centric food she's known for (when Hicks isn't making pastries or behind the counter at Astro, she runs a small, word-of-mouth cooking/catering business called Dolly Roux out of her home).

While they explored the cafes of London, Sydney and Tokyo, Hughes, who was raised in Ann Arbor, kept close tabs on Detroit's growth and progress. Struck by the ease and accessibility of Sydney's vibrant café culture, Hughes and Hicks wanted to figure out a way to bring that energy to Detroit. "We printed out all the forms for Eastern Market from Sydney. We were thinking we'd move back and open a market café there," says Hughes. Then his visa ran out and he headed to Japan to visit family, while they tried to figure out how to live and work in the same city again.

It was during that time Hughes read a development news piece in Model D about a new coffee shop opening in Corktown. He made a few phone calls and within a month he was on a plane to head up the coffee program at the Mercury Coffee Bar--the Andrew Zago-designed café with hard edges and a shocking pink floor that opened and closed in the space of six months. Mercury was on the opposite side of the Michigan Avenue block that Astro shares a block with Slows, LJ's Lounge and the yet to open Sugar House. (Editor's note: we're keeping our beady eyes on that block. Earlier this year, we published this chapter of Adventures close to home in part focused on these projects. More is sure to come.)

"People spent a lot of time debating all the reasons it closed and no one was talking about the good things. We met so many people and realized that there's a market for this," says Hughes, who's especially proud of the coffee program he brought to the city. "People were driving upwards of an hour to get a cup. We're secretly waiting for the day when a lot of the same people come back and we still remember their orders."

But even before Mercury closed, Hughes and Hicks, who had fallen in love with Detroit, knew they had found a home for the business growing in their heads. "I would never do this anywhere else," says Hughes, who was based in Brooklyn before hitting the transcontinental travel circuit. "People have forgotten what it means to be a shop owner in America. In Detroit, it still means something. We have a real demand and it's not a competition. We're not in a neighborhood in New York where there are already 30 cafes and you're trying to beat them all out."

All this contributes to why the honest, old-meets-new aesthetic of their shop is so important to them. Hughes and Hicks hold fast to a fundamental belief that design is a crucial aspect to service and experience -- and that it's sorely undervalued in Detroit. "People think this attention to design can't work in Detroit, or that it's somehow contrived. It's not vanity. It's about customer experience. It's for the people who get to sit in the chairs and drink out of the mugs."

To wit, Astro feels every bit an expression of their creative vision. With a little help from friends, they designed the space together with architect Tadd Heidgerken. They designed the clean-lined interior themselves, from the natural wood-clad bar to picking out the factory lights hanging above the gleaming white countertop.

And every single detail has a meaningful story wrapped around it. Like the café tables they found on a family trip to New York, when Hicks' parents came to town to celebrate the couple's impromptu marriage at City Hall. They found them at Luddite in Williamsburg but couldn't get them home on the plane, so the following week, they drove there and back to pick them up in less than 24 hours. "We spent our entire furniture budget on four things," Hicks says. "But we made up for it by buying everything else in Detroit." The factory pendants, an extra-long wooden bench with peeling paint, and an old brown church pew came from Senate, a few miles west on Michigan. "They've been really good to us," says Hicks, who proudly flips over an old, green tin bowl to reveal an old, barely-there sticker on the bottom that reads "Detroit."

That most of the stuff came from antique shops, flea markets or as hand-me-downs from friends is no accident. "These things have history in them and you can feel it," says Hicks, who adds that a set of industrial stools came from good friend Ko Melina of Detroit rockers the Dirtbombs.

The first thing you notice when you walk in the front door is a vintage American flag, which competes with only one other statement-maker. Hicks painted the over-sized Indian that hangs ominously on the back wall her first weekend in Detroit and Hughes insisted they hang it in the shop. "I think it speaks to some part of his dreamer mentality," says Hicks.

And what a dream. So far, the day-to-day reality is even better than they imagined, especially for all the people filing in for their long-awaited Flat White fix (the cult drink -- a flatter cappuccino -- Hughes brought to the Mercury from Australia). Over-sized wooden bowls are piled high with croissants and deliciously spongey butter scones, while Anzac cookies and meringues fill glass jars beside the register. A stack of records lean against the wall. Music by Brian Eno plays from the small turntable, which sits on a stack of cookbooks. Hardly anyone stares at a laptop -- and that, too, is by design, in case you're wondering. They wanted people to talk to each other.

Ticking off a mouthwatering roster of all the delectable treats and sandwiches she has in store, Hicks presents a freshly-baked chocolate cherry mousse cake on a glass pedestal stand. As far as baking preferences go, cakes, quiches and pies are so far -- and quite fittingly -- the house favorites. "Everyone is sharing a piece of something bigger," she says.

Meghan McEwen is a Corktown-based freelance writer who has contributed features to Model D since 2005. Here is a little gem from December of that year. Enjoy.

All photography by Marvin Shaouni
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