Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=213018
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Sarah Fentem/MEDILL

Far North Side coffee roasting business Metropolis has become a Chicago cult classic.


Metropolis on topolis

by Sarah Fentem
Dec 06, 2012


It is said that a good coffee bean takes on the flavors of the region in which it’s grown. Beans grown in Latin America are usually citrusy and medium-bodied. Sumatran beans are earthy and bold, and African beans are fruity and bitter. No matter where it comes from, though, the best coffee is complex, interesting, and delicious, the product of geography, chance and people. The same could be said about Jeff Dreyfuss, whose globetrotting adventures brought him and his coffee-roasting company, Metropolis, to Chicago where his signature blends have become cult favorites.

“Everything is part of the story,” he says of the company, which he co-founded and owns along with his son, Tony Dreyfuss, in 2003. Dreyfuss traveled the world first as a member of the Peace Corps and later as an academic, traveling to places as diverse as St. Lucia and Argentina. He is one of a very small number of linguists who specialize in the Indonesian language, one of the five languages he speaks fluently. (During an interview, he had a Russian textbook on the table in front of him. “Oh, do you speak Russian?” he inquired in the same tone another would ask someone if they preferred cream in their coffee.)

Dreyfuss returned to the United States in the late ‘90s and moved to Seattle during the heyday of the gourmet coffee boom. There were “Jack Kerouac” types everywhere, he said.

“You’d look through the windows, it’d be everything pierced, everything black.” Soon Dreyfuss and Tony, who also lived in the Northwest, began bonding over coffee, going to “cupping’s” and quickly becoming fanatics. After awhile, the father-son duo began playing with the idea of starting their own bean-roasting business. In 2001, they moved to Chicago where Tony’s wife had family and began setting the plan in motion.

Even though Metropolis was born on the West Coast, the company’s Chicago roots were put down quickly. In the early days, the two Dreyfusses bought an old coffee-roasting container and stored it in a Chicago warehouse. Later, when they visited their storage space, there was a prehistoric claw dangling inside the drum. The warehouse also was being used by the Field Museum, and the claw belonged to the traveling version of Sue, the city’s own Tyrannosaurus Rex.

While they originally planned on simply selling wholesale coffee beans directly to buyers, it quickly became apparent that the Metropolis business model needed some tweaking. “[People were saying,] ‘Hey, where’s the coffee?’’ said Jeff. “Why should anybody buy our beans if no one can taste it?”

They decided to open a small café in Edgewater near the Granville El station (the company’s signature Red Line espresso is a nod to the neighborhood) as a way to establish the company’s presence and get people tasting and talking. In 2003, Metropolis Coffee Co.—“We originally were going to call it The Dreyfuss Affair, but everybody thought it was a sex club”—opened its doors to the pubic, and soon after had enough business to expand into the adjacent storefronts.

On a weekday morning in late November, the café was louder than the average Starbucks, more like a restaurant or student union than a place where people in headphones and sunglasses huddle behind their laptops. The large space, crammed with mismatched chairs and tables, left little room to maneuver though, fortunately, Metropolis’ average clientele skews rather thin and agile. Signs on the wall beg customers to share tables with strangers to save space.

A woman in high boots and a shaggy jacket threw her bag down on one of the tiny tables.

“Do you like my coat?” she asked a perfect stranger. “It’s monkey fur!”

The woman introduced herself as Stacey Garretson, a recent transplant from Los Angeles who visits Metropolis daily. “My day doesn’t start without coming here,” she said. “It epitomizes the best of the Midwest and Chicago.”

Because she is new in town and works from home, Garretson said had a hard time connecting to her new town and making friends. She said Metropolis filled that void. When she was hospitalized recently, she was surprised to find flowers and good words sent from the friends she had made at the coffee shop. People she thought she just happened to have coffee with turned out to be real friends to her, she said

That sense of community is one of the reasons Metropolis has become a North Side favorite. The business has made extensive use of social media to build a community. Seth Alexander, who is in charge of human resources and social media, says that reaching out to customers through social media keeps people coming back.

“At this point, we use a lot of personal interaction,” he says of the business, which uses platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and its business blog to connect with its fans. Alexander says the strategy is a way to reach out to new customers—“people who have heard of us and maybe been in a time or two. When we interact with them in social media, that’s when they come back.” One look at @MtropolisCoffee’s Twitter feed shows the company never lets a compliment go unrecognized. (Sample tweet: “@JWS919 Jeff -- sorry about the GCs. Glad you're drinking Redline! I could use a shot right now too. Gettin' the afternoon sleepies.”)

Ultimately, though it’s about the coffee. For the Dreyfuss team, quality is the most important aspect of separating Metropolis from its competitors. The company is careful not to sell wholesale to any outlet that would let the beans sit on the shelf past their expiration date—which is why you’ll never see Metropolis coffee on the shelves of major supermarkets such as Jewel or Dominick’s.

Metropolis’ reputation for quality is clearly spreading. Without a single salesman, the company currently boasts more than 300 wholesale customers, including Michelin-starred Chicago restaurants such as Alinea.

Metropolis just keeps getting bigger: Revenue has grown 20 percent each year since 2008. According the Dreyfuss, the company is closing in on the $6 million in annual sales. But he admits that with coffee prices surging over the past few years, “Our margins suck.” He declined to elaborate.

The company recently received some exciting news--a recommendation from the Chicago Department of Aviation to become the only coffee shop at Midway Airport beyond the security lines. If everything goes according to plan, the new cafe will open next summer, exposing a whole new set of customers to the company’s brand.

The move is a natural next step for the company—which, like a well-brewed single-shot of espresso, delivers potent results while keeping things small.