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Café con Leche to close after a decade in Detroit

Co-owner Jordi Carbonell is moving his roasting business to Southwest Detroit, but will close cafe doors Saturday

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the size of the cafe.

Detroit — After 10 years of serving Mexican mochas and cortados to Detroiters, Café con Leche on West Grand Boulevard is closing Saturday.

Co-owner Jordi Carbonell opened the coffee shop at a location in southwest Detroit in 2007 when his wife encouraged him to start a business. And the 41-year-old can remember when he was one of three independent coffee shops in the city.

Now, Carbonell said he can’t compete with the 21 coffee shops in Detroit and afford the operating costs for the 1,700-square-foot space he and his wife, Melissa Fernandez, opened two years ago across from the Fisher Building.

“I was trying to find a partner or sell the business,” Carbonell said last month, sitting at one of the cafe’s wooden tables. “I don’t want to close this way.”

Carbonell won’t abandon the business completely. He plans to move his roasting service to southwest Detroit at a facility he’s purchasing on Michigan Avenue.

There, he plans to focus on roasting Calavera Coffee he’ll sell wholesale to supermarkets and restaurants.

A native of Barcelona, Spain, Carbonell launched Café con Leche amid the Great Recession when “nobody was opening businesses,” especially coffee shops that charged $4 for lattes.

“In 2007, I took that risk because southwest Detroit was missing a place for meetings or a place for networking,” he said

He took out a second mortgage and withdrew retirement savings. The financial risk was worth taking, he said, because southwest Detroit felt like “home.”

“From the first day, it was like a perfect fit, because it was a place where people connect,” he said.

Café con Leche existed a year at Bagley and 21st before moving across Clark Park on West Vernor for six years. The Hispanic-influenced coffee and logo of a “calavera” (skull) holding two espresso machine portafilters fit in with the neighborhood.

“Customers say that it was, in Detroit, a place for everybody,” said Carbonell, adding most customers were Latino, African-American and Caucasian. “… Everybody was saying you can’t find this kind of business in Detroit where you feel this connection between the three ethnicities.”

Café con Leche has been “a staple” in the city, said AJ Nichols, who opened the downtown coffee shop Ashe Supply Co. in January 2016.

“People have always known that it’s a place you can go where you’re connected with the owner and you’re connected with the community,” Nichols said.

Longtime customer Grace Montero, 40, was disappointed to hear of Café con Leche’s closing. The co-founder of the pop-up Social Sushi Detroit said she often met at the New Center location for meetings and frequented the previous southwest location, which fostered “camaraderie in the community.”

In 2015, Carbonell opened in New Center and operated two locations for a year. Unable to agree with the landlord on a new lease in southwest Detroit, he closed that location last March.

He also started roasting his own coffee that he sells to local businesses such as Nest in Midtown and grocery stores such as Honeybee Market on Bagley.

The Ferndale resident and father of two said the roaster provided “extra money” for the business. He always managed to break even, he added, but “to make a profit was the hard part.”

He partly blames the Michigan winters. “Last year, I was only reaching 10 percent of potential customers in the (New Center) area,” he said. “The thing is, they have coffee in each building, and in the winter time, they don’t leave the building.”

The other factor was competition. Nichols agreed Detroit is getting “saturated” with new coffee shops.

“For the amount of coffee shops there are versus how many people actually live in pockets of this area,” Nichols said, “it’s hard for everybody to really get a piece of the pie.”

Co-owner Fernandez, 43, who works for General Motors, wrote in an email she thinks minority-owned businesses face an added challenge of competing with the celebrity chefs and “high-end” investors seeking opportunities in Detroit.

“If these new wave (of) businesses won’t ... allow us to participate as suppliers, vendors to their businesses, then we can’t compete and remain part of the texture of Detroit,” wrote Fernandez, 43. “We will be priced out of the middle. We’ll end being an Oreo city.”

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg