They say that adversity reveals character – so Milan Coffee Works’ recent, good-humored response to a coffee-batch-gone-wrong just might make the quirky, little, off-the-beaten-path cafe your new favorite hang.
“We bagged (the coffee) up and sold it at a discount, calling it ‘Oops Roast,’” said MCW founder/owner Matthew Bjurman, who Instagrammed a photo of the brown paper bags bearing personalized Sharpie messages like, “It’s better than bad! And it’s organic!” and “Don’t go falling in love with it. It will never be roasted the same way again.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) these witty warnings, the “one of a kind” roast promptly sold out.
More broadly, since opening its doors in in 2014, MCW – which not only serves but also roasts artisan coffee on-site (in a machine called Amelia, after the pioneering female pilot) – has become a popular stop for locals who pretty much have a standing daily order; cyclists from Ann Arbor; and occasionally truckers on their way to Ohio, or car repair customers who wander in from down the street.
“One of our big things is the bourbon latte,” said Amber Sumner, a barista who started work at MCW last September. “It’s the reason I started coming here as a customer. … It’s one of those things where, if you have it, and you like the taste of it, it’s hard to find in other places.”
As Sumner spoke, Bjurman was bent over in the middle of the shop, scooping Peruvian coffee beans from a large sack into a bourbon-fragrant barrel. A turntable, positioned near the cafe’s entrance, provided background music – Sumner had (correctly) predicted, via a teasing aside when Bjurman arrived, “He’s going to turn off my country music” – and four piles of old albums (from Beastie Boys, Merle Haggard, and everything in between) lay next to an old couch in the cafe’s rustic, intimate seating area.
Mounted on the walls, above the rolltop desk and mismatched tables and chairs, are road bikes, and a checker board is laid out, ready for a game.
“One thing that stuck out to me is that this was not just a coffee shop,” said Sumner. “It’s a place where conversations can happen. Matt really strives to make this a community gathering spot. So it’s not just about a product, and it’s not just a business. It’s a place for people to stop a minute, and talk to each other, and maybe meet some new people.”
Bjurman, who lives in Ann Arbor, had been a special education teacher in the Lincoln schools when he started dreaming of another line of work altogether.
“It was a slow progression of being influenced by coffee shops in Ann Arbor and doing some roasting in my garage,” said Bjurman. “I even roasted coffee with my students in the classroom, … which probably wasn’t the best thing. … But I had them do a lab where they took note of color changes in the coffee, and then they brewed the coffee and served it at school on Fridays.”
Bjurman let the students use his own personal roaster, and money raised from the coffee sales (to staffers) was donated to a local animal shelter. But Bjurman’s interest in the coffee business only grew; and in part because some of his teaching colleagues lived in Milan, “I was keeping my eye on (MCW’s current location) while I was burning out at work,” said Bjurman. “ … I knew it would easier to take a risk (in Milan), and I also wanted to do this where it wasn’t already being done.”
Specifically, Bjurman’s vision involved “serving coffee thirty feet away from the roaster” – but an added bonus of MCW’s venue was that its space (formerly Tim’s Auto Repair) is connected to The Mother Loaf Breads, and it’s located next door to Original Gravity Brewing Company.
The Mother Loaf’s only open on Saturdays, but on that day, a door between it and MCW remains open, inviting customers to visit both; and cyclists and others in Milan enjoy the convenience of being able to, on any day, grab a meal at Original Gravity and maybe a Mexican Mocha at MCW.
“It’s really helped to partner with other local businesses,” said Bjurman. “ … (Building a business) hasn’t been easy, but it’s been the customers and the staff that have motivated me to keep going and have fun with it.”
One thing Bjurman’s currently focused on is growing distribution for MCW’s bottled, flash-chilled ice coffee (“It’s cleaner tasting and more flavorful than a cold brew,” said Sumner); and businesses that currently carry MCW coffee, or collaborate with Bjurman, include McPherson Local in Saline; Argus Farm Stop (both locations), Homes Brewery, Downtown Home and Garden, Fred’s, and First Bite in Ann Arbor; and Cool Beanz in Dundee.
On the other side of the ledger, Bjurman decided to close, in February, a second MCW location he’d launched on Packard Rd. in Ann Arbor last May.
“I think we had a good team there,” said Bjurman. “We had things in place, and I was very happy with what we were producing. But there’s a lot of places doing coffee and pastries in the a.m. on Packard.”
“It wasn’t a place to hang out or do homework, because of the space we had,” said Sumner, who will soon move from Ann Arbor to Milan. “It was more cramped, and there wasn’t a lot of parking. Often, on days when it was nice out, we’d get a lot of people coming in, and we’d be super busy. … But as it got snowy and colder, fewer people would just be out walking around. And in Michigan, that accounts for several months of the year.”
MCW’s original location, though, seems to have carved a unique space for itself in Washtenaw County, and more specifically, in the hearts of Milan’s community. A few theater-style seats have been donated for the space, as have record albums, and a segmented former pew – with cushioned seats reupholstered in burlap coffee bean bags.
“It’s one reason I love (Milan),” said Sumner. “Its random, good people.”
Bjurman, when asked about the kind of days he finds most satisfying at MCW, answered, “Every day. And the more people that come in, the better. Not because of dollar signs, but because it means I’ve created something that people have really grabbed on to.”
All pictures taken by Jenn McKee.
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