Mobile shop Drifter Coffee brews success in Motor City
Drifter Coffee mobile coffee shop can serve coffee, tea and various drinks wherever the trailer fits.
Alleah Webb launched the hipster coffee caboose in 2015. Fans can find her in Midtown, Corktown and downtown
This story has been updated to reflect a location change for Drifter Coffee this weekend. The truck will be at MoPop Festival in Detroit, not the Barefoot & Free Yoga Festival.
Detroit — Drifter Coffee wasn’t set to open its window for another hour one recent Sunday in Eastern Market, but the turquoise and white coffee caboose already had a line of customers eager to get their caffeine fix.
The sun beating down and market packed, founder Alleah Webb estimated she’d sell 500 cups — 15 pounds of hot and iced coffee — by 4 p.m. Her go-to?
“Just black iced coffee,” she says, sipping a cup in one hand. Or the Kombucha from Detroit Kombucha Brewing Co.
“That’s also my favorite,” she added. “It’s like a fermented fizzy black tea. It’s really good for your gut.”
The 26-year-old entrepreneur from Ferndale started the mobile coffee shop in 2015. True to its name, Drifter Coffee drifts around Detroit, selling coffee at such spots as Eastern Market, on Canfield in Midtown, outside Motor City Wine in Corktown or by the riverfront. Fans can also find Drifter at Michigan festivals like the two-week Electric Forest, where the caboose plowed through 250 pounds of coffee this summer.
Webb worked at a hippie coffee house called Kaya while attending Central Michigan University, and her idea to launch her own coffee shop started brewing.
“I really fell in love with the exchange between the barista and the customer,” said Webb, sitting on a stool behind the truck. “You’re there to make someone better, you’re there to fulfill someone’s caffeine needs, you’re there to take care of them. And you get to know them.”
While studying business at CMU, Webb traveled the country visiting coffee shops. She filled seven notebooks with notes of what she liked and didn’t like, and the menus. By graduation, she knew she wanted to open a coffee shop, but she didn’t know where.
“So I decided to go mobile,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to start a mobile business than it is to start a brick and mortar.”
She didn’t have any investors or loans, but she did have $800 in savings to purchase the caboose she found on Craigslist.
“It was falling apart,” she admitted, laughing. “(My dad and I) went and looked at it, and I immediately started having a panic attack because I know I’m going to get this, and we’re going to start this.”
They brought it home, and her father, who works in maintenance, gutted the entire thing.
“I’ve been building stuff my whole life, but doing something like this was a trial and error,” said her father, Vern Webb, 49, of Livonia, who was helping serve coffee. “It took six months through the winter outside.”
Besides her parents, sister, grandma, other relatives and friends, the community rallied behind her, Webb said. Through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, she raised more than $10,000 to cover the cost of supplies and vendor fees.
In May 2015, Drifter debuted at Woodbridge Community Garden.
“We had a crazy awesome turnout,” Webb said, “and it’s just been nonstop since then.”
Satisfying coffee cravings
“Then it gets too cold,” Webb said. “And I always take January off to sleep.”
Webb’s father is also revamping a second coffee caboose (this one pink) that will be stationed at the new Detroit Fleat food truck park in Ferndale.
One day, Webb would like a brick-and-mortar store to serve as a headquarters.
“I’m not in any rush, though. I really love traveling around because I like to meet new people all the time and go to cool places,” she said, adding she has the flexibility to close for the weekend and go Up North. “It’s very necessary. As a Michigander, you know, I need to go Up North.”
Yet Webb said Detroit is where business is best. Her first season, she drifted around southeast Michigan. After, she evaluated sales in all cities and found Detroit did the best. Why?
“The people, man,” she said. “We just really fit well with the people here and the vibe. Because our vibe is really welcoming and sunshiny and happy, and we welcome all types of people. ... So I feel like people really accepted us.”
The Drifter name, if you’re wondering, is a nod to driftwood, which tumbles through water and “comes out a beautiful piece of artwork,” Webb said.
“‘Drifter’ made total sense because we travel all around, so we’re drifting all over the place,” she added. “Now, there are so many people who don’t even know my name. They just call me ‘Drifter,’ and I love it.”
A family and friend affair
While her father doesn’t drink coffee or tea — “I’m more of a water drinker,” he chuckled — he couldn’t be more proud of the business his daughter built with a team of eight employees.
“Everyone who works for her is nothing but smiles and positivity. Good vibes. That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “When Alleah smiles at you and tells you, ‘Have a good day!’ she means it.”
Webb’s best friend Rachel Wigley, 28 of Detroit painted the caboose and periodically returns to Michigan to help serve coffee.
“I’m a little bit of a drifter,” said Wigley, explaining she’s in town this summer before heading to Montana.
Wigley met Webb while working at Kaya. She’s also visited coffee shops nationwide and said Drifter has an environmentally friendly factor — the cups are all compostable, for instance. The coffee, roasted by Hyperion in Ypsilanti, also comes from farmers in Papua New Guinea, Colombia and Honduras. The organic loose leaf tea, sourced from Eli Tea in Birmingham, is steeped in a secret recipe.
“(Customers) want more of that relationship where they feel like they can trust you with what they’re ingesting into their body,” Wigley said. “That’s definitely what Alleah strives for and she has achieved so well.”
Sarah Piazza, a social media ambassador for Mercantile Fairs, which organized a recent Shed 5 Flea event at Eastern Market, stopped by for a $3 coconut-flavored coffee.
“Even though it’s hot outside today, it sounded delicious — bring a little summer into my hot cup,” she said.
Troy resident Elizabeth Lyons also got the coconut coffee, but the iced version.
“You don’t need cream or anything,” she said, trying it for the first time. “It’s perfect the way it is.”
As the line grew around noon, Webb kept the coffee coming, only pausing to flash peace signs when customers snapped pictures.
“I know that a lot of coffee shops can be intimidating,” she said. “I just want the community to know that we’re not like that at all. We don’t judge. We try to have something for everybody, and we’re here to take care of your needs.”
Catch Drifter Coffee
Mo Pop Festival
West Riverfront Park, Detroit
Motor City Wine
8 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 31
1949 Michigan Ave, Detroit
Rochester Food Trucks for a Cause
5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. July 31
104 N Adams Road Rochester Hills