Detroiter Emily Steffen opens The Gathering Coffee Co. to foster community through storytelling, coffee and art — even in the era of social distancing
By Perry Haselden
Behind the counter at The Gathering Coffee Co., there’s a prominent felt pendant banner displaying the phrase “far better together than we are alone.” More than just a slogan, it’s what inspired Emily Steffen to open the coffee-shop-meets-community-space in Detroit’s North End neighborhood last August — smack in the middle of the pandemic.
It’s no secret that Covid-19 has greatly affected the food and beverage industry with crippling restrictions and closures, but for Steffen, opening her business when she did was the only option. She had committed three years to bringing The Gathering Coffee Co. to life and strongly believed that people needed a place where they could feel a sense of community. “I know people need a message of hope,” she says. “And even if it’s just a small interaction where people are simply reminded that they are not alone, it’s something that we desperately need right now.”
A Bay City native, Steffen has worked in the coffee industry for eight years. From roles as a barista to selling wholesale to roasting coffee, she learned basically every aspect of the business, and discovered an interesting connection between coffee and people during the process. Unlike meeting up with a friend for dinner or drinks, Steffen realized that people tend to gather over coffee for hours. “Coffee is unlike any other product, “ she says. “It is the only product that brings us together that has no time constraints.”
After graduating from college with a degree in urban inner cultural studies, Steffen dreamed of opening a warehouse space with a mission to bring people together by showcasing a variety of art mediums, from spoken word to photography. As she continued to work in the coffee industry while living in Chicago and then Los Angeles, that dream evolved into something that combined all of her passions — and The Gathering Coffee Co. became a fully formed idea.
When it came down to deciding where to start her business, Steffen knew she wanted to go to a city that was in need of more coffee shops and could benefit from a community space. As she researched potential locations, she discovered that Detroit had far fewer coffee shops per city block than other large cities. She also knew that if she ever moved back to her home state, Detroit is where she would want to put down roots. “I just knew that the story of Detroit was something I wanted to be a part of,” she says. In 2018 she packed her bags and moved to the Motor City.
Once Steffen got settled in Detroit, her search for a business site lead her to North End, a neighborhood that she noticed had little to no communal spaces. She spent the next two years going door to door, speaking with residents to learn more about the neighborhood and sharing her intent to open a “space for the people,” she says. “The whole purpose of why The Gathering exists is to bring people together through the concept of storytelling, and I fully believe that storytelling can come from a cup of coffee, it can come from a conversation, it can come from an art medium.”
Once she received her neighbors’ blessings to open the space, Steffen was faced with the challenge of funding the project. After applying for upwards of 30 grants, she was overjoyed when she learned she would be awarded $30,000 from Motor City Match, an organization committed to pairing new businesses with spaces that will help them grow in Detroit. “I look back on that as a miracle,” says Steffen. “We are where we are because the city and our community has always believed in our mission and purpose. “
One of the coffee shop’s most unique elements is a historical dark room, which is open to the community to use at cost. A photographer herself, Steffen confesses that she has a deep love for film photography and wanted to “incorporate it into the storyline of the space.” Her grandfather taught her how to shoot with a film camera when she was in high school and she still uses that same camera today. “My camera goes with me everywhere,” she says. (Her passion for photography is also reflected on the menu; “Film & A Shot” offers a roll of 35mm film paired with a shot of espresso and tonic water.)
When indoor dining was closed down again in November 2020, just three months after Gathering opened their doors, Steffen was faced with the challenge of not being able to seat people in the coffee shop. Additionally, a space where she envisioned hosting workshops, art galleries and open mic nights was no longer permitted to hold more than a few people at a time. Confronted with the new restrictions, but still wanting to stay true to her mission of lifting up local artists and fostering community, Steffen did what she does best: she got creative.
From safely hosting mini art pop-ups to partnering with other small businesses — most recently teaming up with Not Sorry Goods to create a beanie with the embroidered slogan “shame has no place,” with all profits going to the Detroit Community Fridge — Gathering became a beacon of hope in the midst of the pandemic. Even though people couldn’t gather at Gathering, a community still formed there.
Alyssa Rogers, a 20-year-old Midtown resident and artist, discovered The Gathering Coffee Co. via Instagram. “My favorite experiences with The Gathering is the sense of community it has created,” she says. “Through The Gathering, I have been able to connect with so many creators, get support for the Detroit Community Fridge, and have an art pop up.”
Steffen says she dreams of a day when the coffee shop can be full of people, to be able to have conversations around the large gathering table and talk about essential topics, like sustainability. “I am excited to know that that is coming,” says Steffen. “I get to facilitate this incredible space and an incredible team of people in a community, in a city that I love with my entire heart, and just get to see what comes to fruition.”