Xavier Alexander and Darko Arandjelovic

Metric Coffee Company

03/20/2015

Xavier Alexander and Darko Arandjelovic are the co-owners of Metric Coffee Company on the Near West Side. Xavier is the company roaster; Darko splits his time between managing Metric and his coffee shop Caffe Streets in Wicker Park.

We speak with Darko first while Xavier preps the roaster.

Why do you think you and Xavier work as partners?

DARKO ARANDJELOVIC: He’s an awesome human. That’s a big thing for me. Just how much he loves life, it made sense right away. Having people around me that care, that are passionate. Without ever officially agreeing to anything we just started talking, and we ended up working together. We still see things the same way, including how much of ourselves we put in. And the coffee keeps getting better and better. Having a business is not easy, it’s a lifestyle. If I get out at five, it’s non-stop texting until I’m in bed at midnight. If I didn’t like Xavier it would probably drive me crazy, I would have run naked down the street a long time ago.

What is it like running a small business?

DA: Managing your time, figuring out priorities, that’s still the big challenge for me, because new things are always happening, and you’re like, whoa... today’s Monday, I’ll do it Friday, but Friday needs to be done already...and then five other things come up and you have to figure out how you’re gonna deal with that.

Getting the coffee delivered, for example: that’s exhausting already. And that’s before we’ve even started doing anything! A few times we’ve been running around the city, chasing people, trying to figure out where our coffee is--- and then the coffee ends up with some other roaster, because these people just drive a truck and they deliver stuff. We’re like, “No, no, no: you cannot just leave that out, it’s zero degrees. That doesn’t work.” And they say, “Well, then you come pick it up,” and I’m like, “It’s two pallets of coffee, how can I come pick it up? There’s a reason we hired you! You need to bring it here!”

How did you get into coffee?

DA: I’ve been making coffee since I was four. In Serbia, we’d get together with family and drink Turkish coffee, but I hated it. When it was coffee time, we were probably going to talk about me and my behavior and what was up in school, and I didn’t like that. But when I was making the coffee— my father had a mechanic shop in the garage, he would knock on the radiator, and the amount of times he would knock was how many coffees he wanted me to make for people. It was like talking. Somehow, I was the one who was making the best coffee. I think that was just an excuse for them to make me feel good, but I liked it.

I tried my first espresso when I was fifteen, and I kinda freaked out--- like, how is this even legal? I was super happy about it. I’d have ten espressos a day, and then realize it wasn’t the greatest idea. I went traveling and started figuring out how different places would drink coffee in different ways, how people served coffee. There was the social aspect, where people would get together and talk about life and coffee would bring them together. At the most progressive coffee shop in my town, I would always find someone that I knew. I would grab an espresso or a cappuccino, chat a little bit, and go about my day. When I opened Caffe Streets, I was always trying to figure out how to make people feel comfortable so their visit can be a good part of their day.

When did you leave Serbia, and why?

DA: When I was nine I told my parents I was going to leave, and they started laughing. When I was twenty-three, it happened. Fifteen years later, I’m still here, and I love it.

I always wanted to do things in Serbia, but I was always hitting a wall sooner or later from corruption, various people, et cetera. I guess at the end of the day, it was all the mentality. I was like: I don’t know why I’m feeling lonely and foreign in my own shoes, around my own people. I figured out that I always believed there was something more out there, in terms of personal freedom and that’s what always gave me the drive to work hard and make things happen. I always saw that light at the end of the tunnel; I was just beginning with a belief and then it became a reality.

Now I’m super fortunate and happy with the kind of people I have around me, and the kind of life. All the people around me work a lot; we make something from nothing. That’s my soul food. I love that. That’s me.

Why Chicago specifically?

DA: It was a crazy coincidence that everything I ran away from was here, because the biggest Serbian population after the capital city is here in Chicago. When I first got here, I just had a number, not even of a mutual friend—it was a friend of a friend. I called the guy and he’s like “What do you want, who are you, what’s up?” They knew my nickname, they were kinda familiar with me, they found me a place to sleep. It was like a movie, like fiction. Coming here was challenging, but I’m happy I made it happen.

Chicago is a good city. It’s between New York and LA, but I see that as a positive. It’s a real city, it’s a tough city and it’s a working city. It’s not easy to sell something sugar-coated; it has to make sense. I like that, because it’s really real at the end of the day. And the weather makes you real too. I mean, I like my hoodie and my boots, but spring and summer in Chicago is phenomenal. It’s just the circle of life.

Can you describe the coffee marketplace here?

DA: Chicago is probably the hardest town in the country to sell coffee in. It’s oversaturated. There are a lot of people doing what we do. People are open to new things, but again, it has to make sense. It’s hard to sell. It needs to look a certain way, taste a certain way, it needs to have a story. If you’re missing one element, it’s like: no, no, no! But I see that as a positive thing. I hate the word competition, but it’s healthy competition. We respect that there is more than one approach out there.

I think there’s enough people drinking coffee that we can all have successful businesses. And the different approaches allow the customer to choose. The better job we do, the more customers will be educated and then they are gonna know what they like. The same coffee we buy, someone else might roast it in a different way. A few seconds or a few degrees; how someone serves it, it can change everything. Being a consumer in Chicago is phenomenal.

What does Metric do differently?

DA: I’m married to a chef, and when we go out to eat, most of the time we’ll end up with a bad cup of coffee. There’s room for change, and for us to be a part of that change. Now we’re super happy that at some of our favorite places in the city, they serve our coffee. Most of them do a pretty good job. Once the coffee leaves our space then we don’t have any control, but we also try to have super tight relationships with these guys, and we try to be available for any kind of support. Having our coffee in certain restaurants is a dream come true. And people are also starting recognize what we do, that they can get a certain profile of coffee from us. At the end of the day, I feel good about it, because they see how much we care.

How do you work with restaurants to develop custom blends?

DA: We worked with Jason Hammel from Lula Café, which was awesome. For them, we would always want a bit of grainy taste, because people are used to it. Having it with the Lula Royale, for example, which is a meaty, hearty sandwich; if you have coffee, it has to hold all those flavors. People are also used to putting a little cream and a little sugar in it so it was like, how can we go lighter with what they have, but still have that earthy, grainy taste? It’s a little bit thicker cup of coffee, which people expect at a place like that.

Do you feel that a good coffee is one that can be enjoyed without any milk, cream or sugar?

DA: Yes. Because of its simple sweetness. If you figure out what kind of coffee you like, African or Central American—different coffees totally taste different. It kind of blows my mind that people still talk about how it’s strong or bold. Cellar Door Provisions, they have five different breads. If you toast them all, they are all gonna be like toast, they are gonna be burnt, maybe you’ll figure out, this is a rye, this is a pumpernickel, this is white bread--- but ultimately at beginning and end, they are all burnt. All the medium and light roast coffees, they’re all different, too.

I would like people to be open to new experiences. Try our coffees, try other people’s coffees. If they like a certain profile of coffee, they should just enjoy it. You don’t need sugar, and you don’t need milk, trust me. It became a tradition, but it’s because the coffee was super burned. You needed the protein, because your stomach was like, “Help!”

My mom visited for a month and a half. And after I had been making her coffee my way, she just started drinking regular, black coffee, which hadn’t happened for sixty years. She’s like, “I love your coffee.” And I’m like, “It’s not my coffee, it’s a coffee. It’s a clean balanced, nice cup of coffee.” That’s my approach, as to what we do and why we are doing it. And at the end of the day, if you are served an awesome meal, and someone serves you an awesome cup of coffee, it’s perfect.

We talk to Xavier as he monitors the first roast of the day.

What is the roasting process like--- both mechanically and creatively?

XAVIER ALEXANDER: To start: we’re turning the raw green beans into the roasted product. This is a 1961 Probat UG15 coffee drum roaster. The coffee goes through the hopper into the coffee drum, and the drum agitates the coffee beans. Essentially we’re just cooking the beans, or drawing the moisture out at a rate that’s comfortable to the beans, without destroying whatever nuances or special flavors the coffee bean has. The process takes anywhere between eleven and thirteen minutes depending on the origin. It’s important for coffee roasters to have profiles for their coffees, a way for us to know how to draw the best flavors from the coffee.

These machines are excellent in doing that because of their construction. They’re cast-iron drums. What we get from the cup is a nuanced, clean, balanced cup of coffee. What we enjoy most about coffee is the delicate flavors that come from good coffee, and really our job is source beans that have those qualities, that have the flavors, and then draw out those flavors through the process of roasting.

I’ve been doing this professionally for fourteen years, and it’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I’m a very mechanical person; anything that moves, anything that’s made of iron is something I’m always fascinated by, like old printing presses. Look at this machine: it’s reminiscent to a locomotive. Definitely within the specialty world, German coffee roasters are very sought after, so for us to find this machine was no easy task.

The machine is a fifteen-kilo, and I do anywhere between eighteen and twenty-four pounds, up to thirty pounds in a roasting batch. Throughout the roasting process I monitor the temperature and time. I’m looking for color, for homogenous development in the coffee roast. Soon after it begins to take on this brownish color reminiscent to roasted coffee it goes into a phase that’s called the first crack, you start to hear an audible snap, crackle, pop, and that’s really vital to the roasting.

I make sure to pay very close attention to that process because it is the apex of development, and once you hit that you can make adjustments, but you can’t make time adjustments unless you manipulate temperature. My approach is to do a really hot charge: I employ a lot of heat upfront, and then I manage my paddles, essentially my gas levers, according to how fast or how slow it’s going. Any person who cooks, who understands cooking with a cast-iron medium knows how much heat it retains. You understand exactly the dynamics, what you can do with it. The flexibility it gives me as a roaster is massive.

I’m getting ready to drop it. Right now, this is the base of our espresso, so I’m looking for particular color and I’m looking for an elevated temperature around 435°. But it’s all contingent on how it’s looking, in terms of color. Before I dump the coffee into the cooling tray, I have my air on. The cooling air is going to cease the roasting process, otherwise it’s gonna continue to cook.

See how quickly it leaves the drum? That’s vital because if it lingered for another thirty seconds in there, it will drastically change the flavor. The target that I’m trying to hit can be missed within seconds, so I have to make sure. Every roast that I do is intentional, I know exactly what I want to do with it. Otherwise what you experience is a very inconsistent blend, and since this is the anchor of our espresso it has to be roasted at a certain level and it has to be repeatable, otherwise the barista is gonna have a hard time with the coffee.

We tend to believe in the industry that cast iron drum roasters do a magnificent job at highlighting acidity and body and sweetness, flavors that are really desirable in a good cup of coffee. That’s not to say you can’t roast good coffee in any other type of machine. We’ve tasted coffees from small little home roasters and they can still taste really good. Coffee’s really wild. There’s no one way of roasting it perfectly.

Some people like to think that they do but that’s a fleeting thing within specialty coffee. Inherently there’s gonna be things within each batch of coffee that may not be super desirable to the 1% of coffee snobs that are really looking for the perfect clean cup. There are varietals that are beautiful and expensive and they do have a lot of different flavors that are just incredibly explosive and wild. But those coffees are very limited, and there are other companies that will pay top dollar for that. Here at Metric, our job is to make sure that we get coffees that speak to us, that are gonna be really beautiful and pleasant to drink but also not cost a million dollars--- not literally a million dollars but cost a lot.

What was starting Metric like from a small business perspective?

XA: When people come in we always talk about the machine, and those things are great because we obviously work with this machine and enjoy everything about the process of coffee roasting, but the subject of starting a small business… I can’t speak for anyone else but it’s life changing because it’s obviously not an easy task to give birth to an idea and then do it without any resources.

We take great pride in that we started out literally in a garage. That’s part of the American dream, there’s a lot of great companies that started with very little money, in a garage, lots of hard work, lots of passion, lots of dedication, and doing what it takes---  that’s something we really wanted to convey as a part of our story. It’s not: let’s just round up a bunch of money and hop on the coffee train cause it’s hot right now. We know how much coffee’s in the city.

Knowing Darko and what he’s done with Caffe Streets was paramount in our joining together and doing Metric. Not having that outlet, not having that temple to serve the coffee would’ve meant that we just were another small town roaster here. It’s hard to affect and touch people if there’s no where to go taste your product. Having that relationship really made sense. And for me, I’ve always wanted to do my own thing. I think most people have that vision, that goal in life, but they’re scared.

I often hear: I don’t want to miss a paycheck, I don’t want to not have insurance, I don’t want to be scared. But those very same people are often stuck in a place where they wonder, what if? I didn’t want to do that. I thought if worst comes to worst, then I revert back to working for the man. But we’ve dedicated so much into this company, once we bought the roaster there was absolutely no going back. When we found this place, we had to rebuild it ourselves. We’d show up after working days, come here at night and sand the floors, or paint the walls, whatever it was. That’s the kind of hard work and dedication that I think is crucial for people to employ if they want to break out on their own.

We’ve got to move forward, even with the hurdles, all of the nos that we get, all of the closed doors, all of these different things that make you want to curl up and die, we still have to get up every morning, show up and do it. Thankfully, this year we were graced with a Good Food Award, which is a really great honor. In under a year, it’s a big achievement for us. But it doesn’t just end there, we have to continue to work and forge relationships. I’m learning a lot about that in business, and while in the very beginning it would’ve been nice to have all these safety nets to start a business, now we’re thankful that we didn’t. I think that’s what makes you hungry, makes you want it more. You just find a your way, if a door is closed then you find another one. And if that door’s closed too… you keep it going.

We’ve had people that we reach out to, and get nothing back. It’s hard to not take it a little personal, cause we like to think that we’re sending a product for someone to consume and try and give us honest feedback, even if they straight up don’t like it. In this world it’s about who you know, who you’re marketing to, who’s pumping you up. And the ones that don’t really care about what we do or don’t like what we do… I guess sometimes I get bothered about the whys, but we’ll never know why, and does it really matter?

We’ve been lucky to have some people that champion us, like Cellar Door for example. Honestly, because of those guys taking our coffee literally once a week somebody comes here and says they want our coffee too. Local collaboration is key for us to grow. We collaborate with other quality purveyors like Cellar Door, Lula Café, and Plein Air. We don’t have a ton of accounts but the ones we do, they support us. They like our coffee, we have a good relationship, that’s what matters.

It’s all a part of the journey, man. We’re just grateful we’ve gotten to this point. There were a lot of times where we didn’t think we’d get to this point. At least I didn’t, but Darko did. He’s got that mentality where he’s says to himself: everything’s gonna be okay. Even if he ends up battered and bruised, he’s the worst for wear. He can be in the worst situation and he’ll still say everything’s gonna be okay.

That kind of dexterity, mentality, that way of approaching business, I believe now more than ever is the key to success. Having that, and collaboration. That’s really the two things that we employ. We always hear that it’s always about money. Money this, money that, and they’re right up until a certain point. It just means that if you really want to achieve something you’ve got to get creative.

Is Darko’s optimism the most important part of your collaboration?

XA: Darko and I have learned to be independent within the partnership. He’s got his own problems and I’ve got my own problems. It’s a partnership that based on: you’ve got to show up and still perform. It wasn’t born out of… for a lot of people it’s born out of being best friends, hey let’s start a business, this is awesome, and then it’s like fuck you, I hate you, and everything dissolves.

Here, we’re obviously human beings so there are emotions, but we try to check those things at the door. He does what he does, and I do what I do. We work together but we stay out of each other’s way. He knows how to do a lot of things that I don’t, and he doesn’t pretend he knows how to roast coffee. But I respect and value his opinion because he is my partner. Respecting that relationship, and it works.

So your skillsets are complementary?

XA: Exactly, because I couldn’t do what he does. He has a way with… even though he feels a little reluctant to speak, when you get him talking about something he’s passionate about he’ll drive the point home and he’ll get people on board. I can’t do that as well as does. He can pick up the phone and call people and they’ll just miraculously answer. I don’t have the gravitas, and I know that. So then he leads in getting the connections, the people, and I worry about the coffee and production and it works, I learn from him every day.

I don’t think I would have been able to achieve this on my own ever. We’re both not satisfied with just getting here, we have to be hungry to keep it moving and compel others, because the biggest thing is how does a new business compel potential clients who already have other purveyors, and how do we stand up to them?

What it culminates to is feeling good: people at home, they grind their beans, brew their coffee, sit down and just enjoy it. They play their favorite record or they watch a movie, they talk to their best friend on the phone, whatever it is, they’re having an experience, and even if they don’t realize it and it’s not at the forefront of their thoughts, they feel like this is a good cup of coffee.

That’s what it’s about, and we just want to play our part in it.  That’s really big. A lot of that is the human connection, when you get that plus the coffee and it’s an experience, it’s this sort of perfect circle and those are very far and few between for us. But we know they’re out there, so we want to bridge and develop those relationships, really do them justice.

Metric Coffee Company

Metric Coffee Company

metriccoffee.com

2021 West Fulton Street
Chicago, Illinois 60612

312.757.0306

info@metriccoffee.com


Interviewed by Vincent Labriola and Emily Torem

Photos by Vincent Labriola