Bustling Beans Overhead

The newest entrant to the high-end coffee world, Roasting Plant sets itself apart through an innovative in-house roasting system.

Jul 24, 2013 at 12:00 am

Adjacent to Campus Martius Park and located in the neoclassical First National Building, that 1930 high-rise designed by Albert Kahn, sits a purveyor of coffee that is perhaps the most carefully prepared cuppa joe Detroit has ever seen.

Called Roasting Plant, the coffee retailer (it’s the farthest thing from a coffee shop) is usually buzzing with energy — caffeinated and otherwise — mainly due to the innovative way it prepares a customer’s order.

In the store, the roasting process is on display. Through its computerized “Javabot” system, 12 choices and blends of coffee travel through a system of pneumatic tubes from storage in the basement to appropriate canisters in the shop; from there the beans travel to the in-house roaster where they are micro-roasted in small amounts (comparable to a micro-brewery).

When a customer orders a particular bean, the coffee travels through overhead tubes to be ground and brewed at the server counter. There is never any coffee sitting around, and the show is on display for all to see; the pneumatic tubes are transparent.

Roasting Plant’s owner and operator in Detroit, Elizabeth Rose, recommends a cup of Hawaiian Ka’u, which turns out to be an especially delicious cup of coffee. Rose, a native Detroiter, previously lived with her two children in San Diego from 1996 to 2012. An early investor in the coffee company’s New York-based parent company, Rose had planned to move from San Diego to the East Coast and become more hands-on in the company; to Detroit’s rich benefit, she changed gears and made the decision to bring the business here.

“Starbucks doesn’t roast in the store; Roasting Plant freshly roasts on-site and made on demand. Not ground or brewed until ordered, each cup of coffee is made individually,” Rose says. Like an ad exec, she adds a little tag line to the pitch: “Always fresh, never bitter.”

Detroit had not even been considered a potential Roasting Plant location until First National Building owner — and business giant — Dan Gilbert came calling. A mutual acquaintance had shown Gilbert a video of the computerized Javabot system. He was completely excited and actively courted the young company that had opened its first store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 2007.

Roasting Plant representatives were given a tour of Detroit and shown Gilbert’s plans for the rejuvenation of the city. The pitch worked, and Rose returned to Detroit — and the same First National Building where her father worked as a mortgage banker when she was a child. Rose says her father would bring her and her three siblings downtown every Saturday and she expressed hopes that the city will now come full circle.

Company founder Mike Caswell, who has a degree in industrial engineering, created Roasting Plant’s Javabot system; Caswell spent five years at Starbucks’ corporate headquarters. An efficiency expert, Caswell took his grandmother’s Electrolux vacuum cleaner into the basement and began tinkering with the parts, looking for a new delivery system to transport coffee beans around the store.

Rose says she was knocked out by what she calls “potentially disruptive technology for the coffee industry,” which convinced her to invest in the then-fledgling start-up.

The coffee world is huge, she explains, and there is room for all kinds of players: “We offer customers a much differentiated experience from Starbucks, with freshness and flavor. Customers have been very responsive.” About the Detroit Campus Martius location, she states: “Our view is in the center of the action.”

With two New York stores, Detroit is Roasting Plant’s third location. “Detroit’s weekday numbers easily beat the New York stores,” Rose says. “Business in Detroit has been terrific.” They are trying to get out the word that they are also open for weekend business, including Saturday and Sunday hours.

The space the store occupies is visually dynamic. Watching the coffee shooting through transparent plastic tubes overhead is something to see, adding to the whole excitement about the place. With its outdoor patio overlooking Campus Martius, you do feel like you’re in the middle of everything.

Roasting Plant’s 12 types of coffee include nine single origins, two blends and a decaf. Some notable featured choices are Jamaican Blue Mountain, Hawaiian Ka’u, Sulawesi, Sumatra Red Badger and from India and China, the Lucky Lotus Blend. Coffee selections can all be used for coffee, espresso or iced coffee drinks. They also feature Coffee Shakes made in the blender — a competition for Starbucks frappuccinos.

 “I believe that coffeehouse culture is important in terms of giving people the urban experience that they want,” Rose says. “We are delighted to be a part of that.”

Roasting Plant is located at 660 Woodward Ave., Detroit and is open seven days a week. For store hours and more information, see roastingplanet.com

Carl Bookstein is a freelance writer and contributor to the Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]