Tony Dreyfuss

Metropolis Coffee Company

12/09/2014

Tony Dreyfuss and his father Jeff are the owners of Metropolis Coffee Company in Edgewater.

Metropolis is one of the most respected roasters in Chicago. How did you do it?

It’s been by word of mouth. Quality of product, word of mouth, good service. And I think we’re a little bit of an underdog. That underdog spirit has helped us out quite a bit to become a cult favorite, in Chicago and elsewhere as well.

It started almost eleven years ago. My dad and I are fifty-fifty owners. I was gonna have a little cafe someday; my dad was an Indonesian language professor in Seattle, but he developed a coffee interest and made a really good friend in coffee out in Seattle. We wound up together at a trade show, got really caffeinated, and then we bought a roaster. Without a business plan, or a place to put it, or anything like that.

So we bought a roaster, then we said “Oh shit,” and then my mom and dad moved to Chicago, and about a year after that we opened up on Granville Avenue. My dad roasted in the back, he had learned how to roast, and I ran the cafe. Then over time, through word-of-mouth, we started getting some wholesale customers. First the diner down the street, then the Hopleaf bar, you know, this and that. We compiled a group of really early adopters, they gave us their faith early on which was awesome.

We just kept working at it, we continue to work at it. Refine the craft, learning more. In 2007 we won kind of a big roasting award, we won Roast Magazine’s “Micro Roaster of the Year” and then wholesale really started to take off after that. We’ve just been really careful about how we grow, trying to keep it organic and also so that all the people who work here can still have a life, and not work seventy hours a week or whatever.

Do you often feel the conflict between your creative desires and what you can practically accomplish?

All the time. All the time. A really good example, recently we went through a graphic rebranding of our company. And the reason that we did it was because over the years we accumulated so many different pieces of design--- I mean there was a unifying aspect to it all, but it was pretty disparate. It was very clear that we needed to focus that and say, “This is what our brand looks like.”

But for me, that’s really difficult because I want it to look like all these different things that I find shiny and interesting, but realistically people really need to latch on to one or two images to understand what your brand looks like. You know, I’m constantly fighting against that. I love ideas, and I love change, I’m one of those people who embraces change, but realistically you can’t just change things all the time. It throws people off, it makes them uncomfortable, you can never get any momentum going on a project.

The Art Deco theme of your graphic identity takes inspiration from Fritz Lang. Is that where your name came from?

Yes. Well, yes and no. It came from two sources.

The Fritz Lang film Metropolis: it’s such a beautiful film because there’s this theme through the movie of humanity triumphing over the mechanization of our society. I see these box stores and chains as systematizing and putting things into neat boxes, but there’s a craft movement that says, “No, we can make things by hand, one at a time, and we can pass it from human to human,” and it brings humanity back to the process. So the Fritz Lang film was really important for my father and me, because we felt like what we were doing was a truly human endeavor.

But the name Metropolis was in part from the film but also from Plato. He talked about polis, which was the city state, as he was constructing government in his mind. A metro-polis is a community of city states. Chicago, as we all know, is a city of neighborhoods, so I think Chicago is truly a metropolis. It’s a city of neighborhoods, of city states, and we can be the coffee company that reflects that.

Are there any anecdotal moments that speak to why you love being a roaster?

Yeah, recently. What brings me back to coffee, over and over and over again, is that it’s a collection of people. We have a lot of really amazing coffees, and very transparently you can learn about the people who grow them and process them. It’s a very labor-intensive process. We have this one coffee in particular, from a cooperative in Ethiopia called Aylele, in the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia, and it won at the Good Food Awards in 2014. That co-op is made up of 1,350 individual farms, and all of those growers are compensated at prices that are somewhere between 300 and 400-percent above the fair trade price for coffee.

And the people that process the coffee at the cooperative level are very well compensated, they’re paid extraordinarily well. The coffee’s organic, so the earth is tended, there’s no petrochemicals, people aren’t wearing gas masks picking the coffee. It’s a safe coffee to grow. We get to roast this coffee, we have the honor of buying this coffee and roasting it and then selling it to people who when they drink it say, “Holy shit, this coffee is amazing,” it’s bursting with jasmine and lemon and butterscotch and marmalade.

So when the Good Food Awards calls and says, “You’ve won with this coffee,” it’s kind of reflective of all the people that were involved in the whole chain, and the idea is that everybody involved, from the land to the grower to the processor, to the roaster, to the barista, to the person who finally drinks the coffee, everyone should be better off for having come into contact with that coffee.

I think that more and more we see that playing out where everybody is better off for having come into contact with that coffee, and it’s kind of a new way to look at things, it brings people together, it creates a larger local community, and everyone benefits. But in order for that to happen, everybody has to take what’s right in front of them and make it a little bit better. Like the campsite rule.

It’s great that you acknowledge all the people who are involved in the process.

Yeah, and we kind of do the least amount to it. All we do is unlock what’s already there. Through roasting, that’s our role that we play in it. You know, the grower realizes the potential of the land, the barista realizes the potential of the roasted coffee, and all that we do is realize the potential of the raw coffee through roasting. That’s our part to play in it.

Why do you find collaboration worthwhile?

We’re a community. And I think that it’s a community of craftspeople, and the more that we can harmonize with each other, the more that builds up the community of craft in general. It’s not just culinary craft, it can be artistic craft, it can be musical craft, but we form our community, we strengthen our community, and we’re all stronger as a result. So collaboration is a fundamental part of it.

There’s a beer brewer in Indiana called 18th Street, they said, “Your coffee kicks ass, we want to use this coffee in a beer,” and then it lives out this whole other life, where it becomes this collaborative process and it inspires somebody else to do something beautiful. Or a musician will drink that coffee when they’re recording an album at like Electrical Audio or something, and feel inspired. Or it might inspire a great conversation at a cafe table.

What about Chicago encourages the growth of that type of community?

I find Chicago to be a very humble city, where it’s not all secretive and, you know, “This is mine and that’s yours.” It’s more of a sharing and giving community. I think that there’s something unique about Chicago, it bolsters that feeling of collaboration. I guess I can’t be more specific than that. It’s just a feeling. But people are good sharers in in Chicago. I think that’s what underwrites collaboration: sharing.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

You know, yes. Just very briefly. It’s really hard to be a good consumer. We live in a consumer society and there are thousands of choices before you every day. That can get really overwhelming, so my recommendation is to think about the things that you buy the most often: the coffee that you drink, the beer that you drink, the bread that you buy, and think about how you as a consumer can create positive change in the world, within your community, by recognizing those craft products and trying to support that system.

There’s a lot of good that gets created through that. You can’t be thoughtful about everything, it’s just impossible, but you can be thoughtful about the things you do most often. There’s a reason why, you know, when you go to a big chain store the coffee costs a dollar. It’s not the chain store getting screwed, and it’s not you getting screwed--- but somebody’s getting screwed.

So you know, pay a fair price for the things that you buy, and try to think small and think local, whenever possible. Not that anybody needs a lecture, but it does, it makes a world of difference in people’s lives.

Metropolis Coffee Company