August 12, 2012 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek: Donna's Detroit

Maid cafe Chou Anime brings Japanese pop culture to Midtown

Chou Anime Cafe
Chou Anime Cafe: Detroit's very first maid cafe has opened in Midtown. The Japanese-inspired coffee house/shop/clubhouse is staffed by young women dressed in maid costumes -- and one butler. Chou Anime Cafe is the only "meido kafue" in the U.S.

Detroit has seen many "firsts" over the years: first mile of paved road, first techno artists. And now it has its first maid cafe — or "meido kafue," as these novelty coffee houses and restaurants are called in Japan.

Chou Anime (cho an-i-may) Cafe opened on Woodward at Willis in Midtown in mid-June. Its owners, Oneka and Joe Samet of Birmingham, say it's the only brick and mortar maid cafe now operating in the United States. The first one closed after a three-year run in Culver City, Calif.

It serves tea and Great Lakes coffees, salads, sandwiches, wraps and sushi plus many sweets imported from Japan. But the standout features are the chirpy young women dressed in maid costumes who greet you, seat you, serve you and invite you to play board, card or video games at your table for a small (no more than $2) fee.

A maid cafe is a little like a Japanese tea house run by a modern twist on geisha, those elegant Japanese entertainers dressed in elaborate kimono. Maids, on the other hand, dress like — well — maids, in doll-like outfits with ruffles, bows and optional clip-on cat ears.

Maid cafes originated in Tokyo in the early 2000s and quickly spread all over Japan, spawning spin-offs like maid hair salons and car detailing shops. They originally were a subset of cosplay restaurants, where servers and patrons dress as their favorite fictional characters. The maid character is a popular archetype in Japan, appearing in more than 200 manga (Japanese graphic novel or comic books) and anime (animated cartoons/films).

Anime devotee Derek Parrott, 29, came all the way from Fairhaven, about 40 miles away, to hang out at the café recently.

"The first time I came here, it was purely in an ironic fashion," he admits. "Because there was no way, in my mind, that I thought anyone in America, let alone Michigan, let alone Detroit, could make the necessary conversion to make it [a maid cafe] work in America ... It needed to be authentic without being off-putting. I came here with incredibly low expectations and I was incredibly impressed."

Owner grew up on comic books

Oneka Samet, 35, runs the café's daily operations while Joe, also 35, handles the bookkeeping. "But this is really her thing," says Joe, a recent accounting graduate of Oakland University who still drives trucks for a living while he waits for a job in his field to turn up.

She grew up reading lots of American comics, like X-Men and Silver Surfer. So, as a librarian at the Detroit Public Library's main branch, she wasn't surprised to see young people lining up to check out the Japanese manga and anime.

Samet could see there was a business opportunity selling anime merchandise, and for two years she did just that at Russell Bazaar in Detroit and at anime conventions around the Midwest. But after a visit to Japan in 2010 and her exposure to pop-up maid cafes at the conventions she began to dream of a permanent maid cafe close to home.

The cafe is based on the difficult-to-translate Japanese concept of moe (moh-ay), which can mean cute or adorable or the feeling you get "when you hold a baby or you pet a puppy or a kitten," Samet says.

"When you come you're supposed to get that feeling of happiness and warmness. So that's why the girls wear the costumes," she says. "It's just so when you come in you feel happy and warm."

Samet, a mother of two, is quick to point out the maid costumes are not intended to be sexy or seductive. On the contrary, "they're cute and girly and frilly, more like baby doll dresses as opposed to sexualized," says Samet. "I think the dresses are actually meant to be more innocent."

Service with more than a smile

"Chou," short for chou-chou, means butterfly, as well as five or six other things. In Japanese slang, it's equivalent to our English "super" or "ultra." Which makes sense, since Chou Anime started as a place for otaku — or uber-obsessive anime fans — to congregate. But even if you're not a member of the anime subculture this place is worth a look for its sheer novelty.

The retail area of the cafe carries locally made crafts — some by the maids themselves — and Japanese imports relating to anime culture. You can buy your own maid costume or kimono, anime posters, and manga, which are more like graphic novels about the size of a copy of Reader's Digest than like traditional American comic books.

But the real reason to go is to experience being served by super-friendly maids. "They lavish attention on the guests," says Samet. "They're here to welcome you and make you feel at home." She says the maid role embodies this attitude. Maids may address customers as "master" or "my princess" as they do in Japan.

Samet is always on site when the cafe is open, checking out who comes through the door and making sure her charges are safe. Maids never give out their real names, email addresses or phone numbers. She points out that some of the girls are dropped off by their mothers who feel secure about their supervision.

The patrons are 50-50 male and female, and their interests seem low on prurience and off the chart on Japanese pop culture. While the majority are college students, the cafe attracts a fair number of workers from surrounding businesses, especially the Detroit Medical Center, whose employees drop in for the takeout wraps, salads and sushi.

Where 'nerds' find their people

The maids, who go by their chosen character names for safety, are afficionados of all things anime.

They all seem to have special talents. Maid Aminyan, 15, of Farmington Hills — she turns 16 in September — speaks Japanese and recently gave her first language class at the cafe. Maid Ichigo, of Detroit, can draw any anime character and loves to draw them with syrups on diners' plates.

"I've been obsessed with Japanese culture — and 'Hello Kitty' — since I was 8," says Maid Kei-Chan, 21, of Harper Woods. "I don't think this is anything I'll give up soon."

For many the café is a relief, because otaku culture has a reputation as being for nerds or geeks. Before Chou Anime, "I didn't know anybody who was into this," says maid Ichigo. "It was kind of odd in my family. It was like, OK, she's not normal.

"Somebody like me is known as a nerd and geek and stuff, and we're not cool," she continues. "But then I meet people who are into the same thing, so like, that's awesome."

There was stiff competition for maid positions. Only one male made it, but he's not cross-dressing. The 22-year-old Detroit native adopted the character Butler Wudai.

For a lover of anime, this is a dream job.

"Let's see," says Maid Ichigo. "You have a job. You get to play games, play video games, be in cute outfits and it has something to do with anime — sounds like a winner to me."

If you go

Chou Anime Cafe, 4206 Woodward, 313-638-2155, is open Tues. through Sat., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Maid Kei-Chan, 21, of Harper Woods, welcomes customers to Detroit's first maid cafe. / Donna Terek/The Detroit News
Oneka Samet, 35, of Birmingham owns Chou Anime Cafe with her husband Joe ... (Donna Terek/The Detroit News)
More Donna Terek