Oneka Samet's cafe in the Midtown neighborhood of Detroit has been open for about three weeks and business is bustling. The 35-year-old proprietor says she has a steady base of customers from Detroit itself, as well as visitors from the city's suburbs. Some afternoons she gets as many as 20 to 30 people popping in to hang out, sip some coffee or grab a quick meal.
What's the recipe for her success? It's an unlikely one. Her secret is anime, a popular Japanese style of cartoons known to feature characters with dramatic expressions and exaggerated physical features -- as well as robots, Pokémon and young girls in sailor suits.
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Samet's business, the Chou Anime Cafe, is based off a type of Japanese establishment known as a "maid cafe" where servers dressed in lacy maid costumes lavish attention on their patrons. The Detroit coffeehouse draws from this tradition and from Japanese cartoons, but has been tweaked to appeal to an American audience.
Upon entering visitors are met with a friendly "konichiwa" from one of the establishment's maids (or its solitary butler) dressed to the nines in elaborate outfits. Some of them also elect to wear optional bunny or cat ears. Customers are free to browse a selection of anime-related merchandise or to grab something to eat or drink. The menu features a variety of fresh locally-produced salads and wraps, as well as specifically Japanese items like melon bread, pocky candy and a novelty soda called Ramune. The maids (and butler) don't just serve food though -- they also socialize and play board games with customers. Playstation 3 Video games are also available for a small fee.
One of the maids at Chou Anime, Kei-Chan, believes that, despite the American tweaks, the Detroit cafe remains pretty true to the original Japanese spirit.
"I think the concept is pretty much the same: waitresses dress up in cute little frilly dresses. We're friendly and nice and sweet to our customers," she said. "Some maids take a certain persona like the magical girl or the tough girl -- like the mean girl who's like, 'Here's your coffee I hope you enjoy it!'"
Each of the servers has a distinct profile that is listed on the company's website, www.chouanime.com. The company is contemplating listing their shifts too, so patrons will know when they can hang out with their favorites.
Kei-Chan, who won't share her given name due to a company policy, insisted to The Huffington Post that dressing up isn't an act for her. She said she dresses the same way at home. She's part of subculture called cosplay, whose followers dress up and role play as anime cartoons or other characters. It's a popular pastime in Japan that's catching on more and more in the Detroit area. The city is home to one of the country's larger cosplay conventions, an event called Youmacon that draws thousands to downtown Detroit each year.
Many of the cafe's patrons are part of this community, so the Chou Anime staff plans to sponsor some special events for them in the near future. These include a Pokémon dress-up gathering and a tea party for "Lolitas" -- girls who like to dress up in fancy dresses.
Samet isn't just an entrepreneur trying to capitalize on the anime and cosplay crazes -- she's a fan herself. Her favorite series is a cartoon series called InuYasha, which involves the time-traveling Tokyo girl and a half-demon. Samet, a native Detroiter, got heavily into the art form in 2005 while helping organize a youth anime club at the Detroit Public Library.
It's no surprise that cosplayers gravitate to the cafe. Samet started out Chou Anime as a retail operation, selling anime and cosplay merchandise -- messenger bags, costumes and craft items -- to fans at conventions and over the internet. (Chou, by the way, is a Japanese term for butterfly). She later moved her retail space into a booth at an indoor flea market in Detroit called the Russell Bazaar. These ventures helped her get the business experience and start up capital to set up the cafe, which had been her plan all along.
She was inspired after a trip to Tokyo in the fall of 2009, where she got a chance to get a first-hand look at authentic "maid cafes." It was an eye-opening experience that made her take a different look at American culture.
"People are really open and expressive -- like Kei-Chan would just be able to go outside, decide that she wanted to be cute and dress in pink frilly dresses," said Samet, "Whereas here it's a little more subdued. They're really welcome to being expressive and I think that's a part of what we want to embrace here."
Although the cafe, which is located near Wayne State University, has attracted a lot of cosplayers, anime fans and video game enthusiasts in their twenties and thirties, Samet said it also gets a fair number of older folks from the Detroit Medical Center, a nearby hospital.
Kei-Chan says those episodes result in an occasional culture clash.
"This elderly lady came inside," said Kei-Chan." She had her little grandkid. She was like, "Oh! What's this? I've never seen anything like this before.'"
Although initially disoriented, the woman eventually played a round of the board game Apples to Apples with her server. She had a good time -- even though she lost the game to her maid.
It's a moment that both Kei-Chan and Samet hope more people from outside the anime community will get an opportunity to experience.
"It's like a magical dimension," Kei-Chan said of her workplace. "It's really fun and nice to be here. It's not just for otaku (anime enthusiasts) and gamers. We welcome the normies too."
See some photos of Chou Anime Cafe