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When an out-of-state owner nearly closed this Detr...

When an out-of-state owner nearly closed this Detroit coffee shop, neighbors united to save it

Dexter Grinds coffee shop interior

Dexter Grinds owner Pastor Clete Bontrager wants the coffee house to be a community hub — and a catalyst to revitalize the formerly bustling Dexter Avenue commercial corridor.

By Rhonda J. Smith, Detour Detroit Emerging Voices Fellow

“Hey Ms. Cheeks, you want your usual?” asked Marshawnda Dixson, a barista at Dexter Grinds, a café on Dexter near Elmhurst on Detroit’s northwest side. Dixson, 19, knew to get Joan Robinson-Cheeks, 83, her regular weekly order: tuna fish on Kaiser; a turkey sandwich with cheese, bacon and pepperoncinis; and a White Tiger, sweetened iced coffee with whipped cream.

Cheeks wanted to keep busy with things she enjoyed on that Saturday, the two-year anniversary of her husband’s death — that meant attending a 13th Congressional District meeting before stopping to pick up her lunch and dinner sandwiches at Dexter Grinds. “I like the hospitality. I love the attitudes [of the workers],” said Cheeks, who lives on Carter Street about a mile from the coffeehouse’s Russell Woods-Sullivan Area community.

She reminisced about her neighborhood’s heyday, when her block’s homes were owned by professionals like Dr. Claude Young, cousin of former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. Dexter Avenue bustled with people patronizing businesses like the famed Esquire Deli, a bowling alley, movie theater, car dealership, beauty salons and dine-in restaurants. “It’s still a wonderful place to live,” Cheeks affirmed, and the one-mile corridor is still dotted with staples like car washes, auto shops, gas stations, a bank and pharmacy. However, Cheeks hopes Dexter Grinds creates momentum that spurs other new businesses to open on the former commercial strip. 

It may be typical for Detroiters to be leery of outsiders seemingly swooping into town to save it, but when a group from Kansas City, Mo., opened the coffeehouse in 2016 (with the original name of Eleos), Cheeks and others welcomed it as an oasis to their business-thirsty neighborhood. So when the café threatened to close last year, neighbor and supporter Pastor Clete Bontrager, 47, stepped up to keep it open.

Bontrager joined forces with the other elders of his Restore Church of Detroit to purchase the nearby coffeehouse that had become a symbol of Dexter’s revitalization potential. This fall marks one year since Restore bought the coffee shop, and Bontrager hopes Dexter Grinds can be a mainstay for residents and a model for opening shops in areas others have written off. As a mission-driven business, they’ve committed to staying open despite not making a profit at this stage.

“We’ve seen a lot of things come into Detroit and leave Detroit. We just hate to see something come into Detroit and close,” Bontrager said. “And if we have the bandwidth and have the resources why would we not try to keep this up, something for the neighborhood that enhances and brings community and neighbors together?”

Bontrager said the original owner, Dan Smith, came to him last year, to ask if the church would consider buying the cafe: it was losing money, and Smith planned to close if he couldn’t sell it.  Smith and his nonprofit organization Eleos Ministries bought the building of an abandoned ice cream shop in 2016, seeing himself not as a real estate prospector but as an urban missionary. 

Dan said that through prayer, he came to believe God told him to open a coffeehouse in Detroit patterned after one he operates in Kansas City to provide good coffee and service to those in an economically depressed area. Though Russell Woods-Sullivan has historically been a middle-class neighborhood, as of 2016, more than 40% of residents live below the poverty line, and the average estimated home value is under $40,000.

The ministry eventually sent people to live in Russell Woods-Sullivan and to run the coffeehouse. The missionaries conducted daily Bible study and hosted community groups and outdoor fairs. When their two-year stint was up, neighbors, particularly those from Restore Church of Detroit, took over the operations for about a year. Though Eleos wanted to continue its Detroit location, the store wasn’t profitable not just financially but managerially, Smith said. He said he had never even been to Detroit before 2014, but came because God sent him on a mission, and he left because he believed the mission was complete.

“Yes, it was a strain financially. It was not the deciding factor but it played into it,” Smith said. “As time went on I felt we were hindering the progress of the shop because I was trying to manage the shop from Kansas City. Managing from a distance was hard for me to give good oversight.”

Smith said having Restore Church own and operate the coffeehouse was “the best fulfillment for our vision” as his desire was always for local control. “The goal has been reached, and we have a greater opportunity to see the shop grow, thrive and hire local people.”

Bontrager renamed the shop after taking over, settling on Dexter Grinds after holding a voting contest for customers.Like under previous management, Bontrager conducts a Bible study and hosts community groups. He is also expanding programming: nearby resident Ras Joseph hosts the Linwood Heights Arts Series, with live music and poetry, on the first Saturday of each month.

State Rep. Cynthia A. Johnson also meets with constituents there twice monthly and the 10th Police Precinct hosts Coffee with a Cop meetings with residents.  Bontrager has extended Dexter Grinds’ hours and welcomes additional programming on nights when they’re closed. 

Though Bontrager seems to have created the community hub he envisioned, he’s now fighting against another apparition.

Dexter Grinds owner Pastor Clete Bontrager; Marshawnda Dixson, a Russell Woods-Sullivan resident and coffee shop employee; and customer Darius McClendon and his three kids enjoying smoothies. Credit: Rhonda J. Smith

“The question has been posed to me before, ‘Do you think this is gentrifying the neighborhood,’” Bontrager said. “Everybody has a different definition of what gentrifying is. Some people say it’s moving the old people out of their homes. They can’t pay their taxes anymore when the taxes go up in the area. Well, until our [home and coffee] prices get to what they should be, it’s not much gentrification happening.” 

He said conversations, allowing community members to provide programming, and welcoming “the dudes who come in here smelling like weed” help to erase “the caricature that it’s the millennial or the black educated [type only who drinks coffee]. We have socioeconomic differences in here that you might not see in a monochromatic area.”

Stereotypes of gentrification haven’t deterred Darius McClendon, 37, from coming frequently. Last month, McClendon, who works at Toarmina’s Pizza in the nearby Durfee Innovation Center on Linwood, brought his three young children to Dexter Grinds for the first time.

“It’s a homey place. It’s comfy,” he said as his children smiled and slurped their smoothies.

Cheeks is happy that Bontrager is working to make Dexter Grinds a new kind of staple for the neighborhood and has faith in his vision: “I believe it’s going to be on the map as one of the20places to go.”

Dexter Grinds, 12041 Dexter Ave., Detroit, MI 48206, operates Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-5 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m.-2 p.m. For more info, visit their Facebook page

Rhonda J. Smith is a fellow in the inaugural cohort of Detour Detroit’s Emerging Voices program, designed to tell the story of Detroit’s present and future in the voice of its residents. She is a lifelong Detroiter who resides in the Russell Woods-Sullivan area, where she has served on the neighborhood association board, written for its newsletter, organized activities in its parks and provided residents with tax foreclosure prevention information. With a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in communication, she has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years.