Good to know there are some good, old-school places to hang out, especially when they serve excellent coffee. Being a Russian myself, I always think about revolutions…just kidding.
I met with Tony Dreyfuss, Metropolis’s owner, in order to share his story with you.
V. I love your ideas about what a coffee house should be like. Is Metropolis café living up to your expectations?
D. Absolutely! Our café is pretty big, over 3000 square feet. We could have well over 100 people at any given time; it can be pretty fun and loud with arguments, or it can be really quiet like a library when everyone is working. Plus, most of our customers come from really diverse backgrounds and this is really important to our business, since we praise and regard the differences between people.
V. How did your business come to life?
D. Sometime around 2002, me and my dad found ourselves at the Coffee Fest in Seattle, where we both got really jacked up on caffeine and bought a Diedrich IR12 coffee roaster with no place to put it. It was quite an impulse purchase.
A year later, the Metropolis café and roasterie came to life in Chicago.
In 2007, we won the MicroRoaster of the Year award, which helped us grow quite a bit, and in 2008, we moved to a separate roasting plant because we felt that we couldn’t control the quality if roasting in more than one location.
Now we have two really old Probat roasters – a 15 kilo from the 1930s and a 45 kilo from the 1950, and we expect to roast about 700,000 pounds of coffee this year.
That is pretty much the thumbnail history of our company.
V. What could you tell us about the coffee scene in Chicago?
D. Well, first, there are not nearly as many independent cafés in Chicago, as there are even in a much smaller city like Seattle, for example. Coffee culture is just beginning its growth, and everyone who is opening a café here now is extremely quality focused.
Secondly, I think Chicago has a drip coffee culture. Espresso now makes up 60% of what we sell, but when we first opened, over 80% of our sales were drip coffee. So, we really are drip coffee lovers at heart, and I think that it’s pretty common throughout the city of Chicago as well.
V. How is the business going during the current economic downturn?
D. The business has been amazing; our growth is tremendous, but sustainable. Due to the economy, the rent is low, so we are able to have a bigger space to accommodate everyone, and it turns out that people want to drink coffee no matter what the state of the economy is.
But really the strengths of this business are the people that work here: from the ones that work in our café (we have a really low turnover rate) throughout our roasters. We want everyone to have a firm grasp on what they are producing, and because of that we have been able to handle a high rate of growth.
V. What do you think makes you unique?
D. What I think makes us unique is that many cafés have service and space, but they don’t necessarily have the coffee to back it up, and in some places, they have the coffee, but they don’t necessarily have the service and space. I think that we have managed to have the coffee, service and the space – all in one.
However, I think what really differentiates us is that we honestly want amazing coffee to be accessible and approachable for people that maybe haven’t had an outstanding coffee before. We don’t want anybody to walk in for the first time and feel stupid if he/she doesn’t understand something. For example, the descriptions of our coffees contain just a few words, and they are not florid. We are not trying to turn people off: we really want people to understand that this is something that anyone can understand. It is just the matter of tasting and coming very much to your own conclusion rather than being told what your conclusion should be.
V. Is there something else that you would like to share?
D. Yes, to begin with I just wanted to say that none of this would be possible without my father Jeff Dreyfuss. He is a really strong part of the business, and he is very much the face of the company.
Secondly, I think that our main purpose in the world is trying to gently continue the process of learning. Like Metropolis as well, we don’t claim to know everything about coffee, we try to keep learning too: for example, over the last three years we have developed a blend just for iced coffee, called Prospero, and this year we have discontinued dark roasting. We have taken roast level completely off our packaging because we feel that our customers are ready for that. And we genuinely feel that our place is to move things to a more learned state, not that we know what it is yet, but we will keep going.