When I first learned Espresso Royale was closing all of its locations in early June, it felt like just another thing fighting for my attention. Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — only two examples of white supremacy that have sparked recent uprisings — the news that the coffee chain was closing seemed rather insignificant. That’s not to say Espresso Royale’s closing, or the closing of any business predicted to not make it through the pandemic, won’t have a real impact for some of the 38.1 million Americans employed in the service and retail industries hit the hardest. Still, Espresso Royale’s closing did not seem like the greatest cause for concern at the time.
As I have had more time to reflect on the news, I am left with all of my memories sitting at Espresso Royale, an incredibly important place for me and many of my peers throughout college. It was where we would study on countless mornings, afternoons, evenings and late nights; met with friends in between classes; went on or observed awkward first dates and organized to work on group projects. Espresso Royale was a reliable study spot where you were bound to run into people you knew.
While my peers and I ostensibly went to Espresso Royale to study, my favorite memories there were when we barely got any work done at all. You could always count on finding someone to talk to when you were avoiding homework. As a very extroverted person who loves to procrastinate, I would often go to Espresso Royale between classes, even when I had no work to do, just to take refuge from the cold and find someone to chat with for a couple of minutes. While I stared at blank Word documents hoping my essay would type itself, I got to talk with friends or acquaintances about what was new in our lives, how we felt about school, where we were coming from and where we wanted to go. Since Espresso Royale was open until 11 p.m., we took shelter there for hours on end.
During my junior year, I found myself bewildered by how much time my peers and I had spent at Espresso Royale’s State Street location, or ERSSL as we would commonly abbreviate it. It was impossible to walk into ERSSL without seeing at least three people you knew. One night — while I was once again procrastinating completing my course readings — I took this bewilderment online.
On Feb. 20, 2017, a fellow Michigan Daily opinion editor and I started the Espresso Royale (State Street) Fan Club Facebook Group, an unofficial fan page for people — mainly myself — to post Espresso Royale memes and commentary. The posts in our unofficial fan club ranged from a variety of topics: jokes about Espresso Royale’s renovations or the infamous “coffee12” wifi password, photos of people drinking Espresso Royale in their 8 a.m. class, questions about how much to tip for a $2.50 latte and general posts about the Espresso Royale experience. There weren’t any rules dictating what was appropriate to post, as long as it was Espresso Royale-related. Despite the page never gaining more than 342 members, I reveled in the local fandom and small-town popularity the group provided me, loving the attention I got from strangers who grew to know me as “the Espresso Royale guy.”
While it was all just for fun, our devotion to Espresso Royale left me with the same question that inspired me to start the page in the first place: Why the hell do we spend so much time at this coffee shop? My peers and I must have clocked hundreds of hours each at ERSSL. Given the wide array of coffee shops in Ann Arbor, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Espresso Royale was not the greatest option in town. This is no fault of Espresso Royale. After all, how is one to compete with the likes of Literati Coffee or Roos Roast?
Still, even without these elite alternatives around to serve as points of comparison, it’s not as if Espresso Royale was trying very hard. The coffee, service and seating, albeit reliable, were all just okay. One day during the summer after I graduated, I went into ERSSL with some friends to work on job applications only to find the A/C was out. This memory is representative of many ERSSL experiences: Showing up only to find something massively uncomfortable, yet staying for at least an hour anyways. While I would never go on the record saying ERSSL was perfect, the popular Zucchini bread, strong cups of coffee and camaraderie kept me coming back.
With so many other great cafes to choose from, why did so many of my peers consistently congregate at ERSSL? There are certainly some pragmatic reasons. Espresso Royale’s State Street location was relatively accessible, convenient and open late. Espresso Royale’s prices were not radically different from other options nearby, such as Starbucks, but they generally let you use their space without buying anything. Their openness to letting people loiter in addition to the charm and $2 Latte Wednesday deal — a tradition celebrated like a holiday in the Espresso Royale Facebook group — made it a sufficient college study spot. You could find several friends in ERSSL on Wednesday mornings even when, to our collective horror, the latte deal was raised to $2.50 Latte Wednesdays.
I am certainly not saying Espresso Royale’s storewide policy was to let anyone loiter. Although baristas tended not to care about people loitering, or were just too busy to notice, I have still seen Espresso Royale staff ask homeless residents to leave. The best solution to the lack of places to go without spending money in a city as unaffordable as Ann Arbor — whether to study, see friends or simply take refuge from the rain — is increased investment in affordable housing and public community spaces, not private coffee shops. Still, even though Espresso Royale was not perfect, I worry that the next coffee shop to pop up will create just another unaffordable space in the city. The loss of Espresso Royale creates a vacuum for simple and low-cost places for Ann Arbor residents to meet, work and caffeinate.
While practical considerations drew me to Espresso Royale’s State Street location, the real appeal came from the space it provided to spend time with friends under the guise of getting work done. Espresso Royale made socializing easy. I would often go there to meet friends, many of whom I don’t catch up with anymore, without even telling them to show up. The closing of Espresso Royale, a coffee shop that served a strong cup of coffee and an even stronger sense of community, is a massive loss to Ann Arbor.
I could always count on finding an extra chair to pull up across the coffee-stained carpet to a table of friends, a $2 Wednesday latte and vegan Zucchini bread in tow. But now, with Espresso Royale gone for good, those wobbly chairs are left empty and cheap coffees are a thing of the past.
Max Lubell is a graduate of the University of Michigan and can be reached at email@example.com.