Back in the late 80s, I would visit friends in Ann Arbor. On wintery weekend nights after a concert downtown, we often went to the original Espresso Royale cafe on State street. Back then, getting a fancy cup of espresso or a latte was truly a treat for me and something new to Ann Arbor, too. The lines were long and it was generally a 20 to 30 minute wait to get your coffee and pastry. The wait felt almost like going to Zingerman’s Deli on a football Saturday. It was worth it, though. Getting a cup of Espresso Royale coffee was really something special.
Longtime Espresso Royale employee (and M-36 Coffee Roasters owner) Lisa Tuveson recalls the atmosphere back then, when the place got so crowded some night’s that total strangers would often sit at the same tables and just talk. She said customers would met up there to converse, exchange ideas, decompress, or even fall in love, and people were accepted no matter what they looked like.
“Espresso Royale was the first coffeehouse in Ann Arbor and as people started to visit and experience it, they grew to love it,” Tuveson said.
She added that as time went by and cellphones, laptops, and smartphones became the norm, cafe culture stayed pretty much the same. People still came in to catch up, slow down, or just quietly read or study with a good cup of coffee and a pastry.
As the popularity of coffeehouses grew, Tuveson said it made people in the industry work harder and smarter. Despite the competition, Espresso Royale continued to be strong in Ann Arbor and other locations in East Lansing, Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin; and Champaign, Illinois. It was thought they would be around for a long time, but that all changed with COVID-19.
An Outpouring of Sadness
On June 11, the company made an official announcement. It was closing its doors for good due to the pandemic. They initially shut down on March 20 with plans to reopen but said that, as the shutdown continued, it took too heavy of a toll to continue.
“Sadly, our company has not survived the Coronavirus pandemic” the statement said.
For many customers, the sadness of losing Espresso Royale included losing a cozy cafe experience, local music performances, and local art displayed at some locations. Tuveson said that after the closing, many people lamented not being able to go to their favorite locations anymore.
“It was home to so many people and we are grateful to have been able to give them a place to belong,” Tuveson said.
Tuveson and longtime roaster Ken Parguleski, both 30 year employees, were heartbroken when their workplace closed for good. Tuveson said business was fine when COVID-19 hit but, after three months of shutdown plus the loss of student customers, it could not stay afloat. She was saddened by not only the loss of her job but the loss of a local institution.
“We were really tied to the Ann Arbor Community,” Tuveson said.
From the Ashes M-36 Arises
In the wake of the closing, Tuveson and Parguleski decided to open up a roasting facility because they were still passionate about coffee and were not ready to let it go. They found a facility in Whitmore Lake, named it M-36 Coffee Roasters after the road it was located near, and got back into business with a staff of three people. Parguleski said M-36’s blends are identical to the classic Espresso Royale blends, so anyone missing their favorite coffee needs to give them a try.
While the original cafes have folded locally, another longtime Espresso Royale employee opted to reopen two locations in Champaign, Illinois under the same name. Douglas McCarver also plans to open three cafes on the University of Illinois campus when students are allowed to return. Additionally, McCarver plans to open another in nearby Urbana, Illinois. For M-36 Coffee Roasters, this is good news as they are supplying all the coffee for the revamped cafes.
M-36 Coffee Roasters scored another coup with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources when it created seven blends for sale at campground stores called ‘Love Our Parks Coffee’. A portion of the sales proceeds from these blends helps to protect both the parks and the state’s waterways.
Their coffee is also available at 18 grocery stores around Michigan, including area outlets like Buschs, Plum Market, Arbor Farms, and Sparrow’s Meat Market in Kerrytown. For M-36 Coffee Roasters, the opportunity to fill the void left by Espresso Royale’s demise is an exciting one and they hope to flourish. For them, it’s more than sales, they want to be a brand associated with the area much like Espresso Royale was.
“We hope to have the same connection to the community as ERC,” Tuveson said.