Detroit’s former Urban Bean Co. cafe becomes SPKR BOX bar – but keeps the love of techno and espresso | Drinks News | Detroit
Detroit’s Capitol Park neighborhood has changed a lot since Josh Greenwood first acquired the funky, mid-century modern building on the corner of Grand River and Griswold in 2000. When he opened his Urban Bean Co. there, he set up a DJ booth. in a nod to its former tenant, Blake Baxter, a techno DJ who ran the Save the Vinyl record store in the space in the 90s.
“Nobody was in Capitol Park,” Greenwood recalled at the time. “There weren’t even streetlights. It was like me and basically Larry Mongo [of next-door Cafe D’Mongos Speakeasy] holding the neighborhood. He lived above his house, and I lived here at the store for several years.
The Urban Bean Co. opened in spurts, closing in 2008 and reopening in 2013, after Dan Gilbert moved his headquarters from Quicken Loans downtown and attracted an influx of young workers. In recent years, it seemed like Greenwood’s gamble was finally paying off, as Capitol Park is now buzzing with a slew of retail and dining options.
Then the pandemic happened.
Greenwood says he decided early on to use the forced closure to reinvent his store, which culminated in renaming it SPKR BOX and acquiring a liquor license.
“Like [Capitol Park] turned into what it is today, which is a prosperous neighborhood, it makes sense for us to get a liquor license and provide liquor and coffee, and fine-tune that thing,” says- he.
Greenwood has a deep love and appreciation for techno, having hired DJs for 25 years, including at his former Eastern Market nightclub Push. He’s gearing up to open SPKR BOX in time for the Movement festival, planning to lure techno fans into the revamped space with a number of DJ events.
The $750,000 restoration saw Greenwood and his partners, which also include Mootz Pizzeria’s Tony Sacco, simultaneously return elements of the building to their original glory while adding new features. For example, over the years, as its windows broke, previous owners replaced them in sections, resulting in a patchwork of uneven break bars. But now the windows have been restored to their original design, and Greenwood says they are now the tallest in town at 14ft 3in high.
Additions to the space include a brand new bar and amenities, as well as the construction of a cozy private nook and smaller bar on the second floor. The wooden panels of the custom DJ booth have also been upgraded with bright yellow upholstery.
To lead SPKR BOX’s beverage program, Greenwood has tapped Thomas Phillips, who has experience at Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro and Bella Piatti in Birmingham and Red Crown in Grosse Pointe Park, among others.
Phillips says he’s building a menu around coffee-infused cocktails, but wants the bar’s offerings to be well balanced.
“If you come in and want a margarita, or a screwdriver, or a French 75, we can do that,” he says. “I want to set that standard, and you can always have it here. But what we want to have fun with is a bit like playing with cocktails in the cafe.
“It used to be a cafe with really good espresso and fun lattes,” adds Greenwood. “And now we’re totally on the west coast.”
For food, Greenwood says he partners with a local company called Village Hand Pies, which makes what he describes as a cross between a croissant and a pate. Phillips describes them as “hot pockets for adults.”
SPKR BOX will be open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Greenwood says he hopes to fill a niche in the local bar scene for “third quarters,” noting that most bars in town don’t hold up early in the morning.
Naturally, the renovations also include a new sound system, and Greenwood says he plans to play the music on an outdoor speaker to entice people to walk down the street.
It organizes a number of DJ events for the movement weekend. This includes “The Juice is Loose” party from 3-8pm on Friday, May 27, featuring DJs Sara Simms, Alley Kay, Animkee, Psy-Chick, Rirkin, VSRL, Zen Zero, Adam Charles and Andrea Kalajian. On Saturday, May 28, the AM, Shigeto b2b Scott Z and Isaac Prieto will also tour from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. There’s also a free drum and bass-themed party with DJ Rec starting at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 29. The movement’s afterparty is also scheduled for Tuesday, May 31.
Greenwood says he will also continue a tradition from his Urban Bean Co. days, recording the Internet radio show Planet Funk for 313.fm on Wednesdays. The show features two guest DJs who spin live in the cafe, who are then interviewed.
“We don’t necessarily always play techno,” says Greenwood. “I mean, there are people who come to play all these 45s and jazz and funk and r&b. … We sort of mix – but there is no trance. We don’t allow trance here. In fact, there is a person allowed to play trance, but he only plays once a year. He gets a pass, because he’s a lover.
He adds: “We are delighted with the opening and delighted with the team. We’re gonna kick ass around here. It’s not your usual cafe.
“Like, we can be loud,” Phillips says. “That’s what I want, to be different. Like we wanna be loud and proud and jam and have fun with it.
SPKR BOX is located at 200 Grand River Ave., Detroit; more information is available at spkrbox.bar.
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