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CAFFEINE_Dreyfuss

Benjamin Miraski/Medill

Tony Dreyfuss climbs a ladder at Metropolis Coffee Co.'s new roasting location. The company is expanding to the art deco garage in Andersonville later this year.


In the coffee wars, quality is king

by Benjamin Miraski
June 03, 2008


CAFFEINE_Garage

Benjamin Miraski/Medill

The second floor of this former garage will be the home of Metropolis Coffee Co.'s wholesale operations. Construction is currently underway for office space and the installation of the roasting machines.

Snapshot

Name: Metropolis Coffee Company LLC

Business: Premium coffee roasters

Headquarters: 1039 W. Granville Ave., in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood

Owners: Father and son, Jeff and Tony Dreyfuss

Revenues: $2.5 million

Employees: 24

Volume: 200,000 to 250,000 lbs. of coffee

Steady Sales: According to Jeff Dreyfuss, the company sells on average, 100 1-lb. bags of coffee per day from the cafe location.


The coffee wars have been heating up as Oak Brook-based McDonald’s Corp. attempts to eat into the premium market served by Seattle’s Starbucks Corp. Compounded with a similar move by Dunkin’ Brands Inc.’s Dunkin’ Donuts, the coffee market looks very crowded.

However, at 1039 W. Granville Ave., in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, premium craft roaster Metropolis Coffee Company LLC is carving a name for itself because of its strong coffee understanding. That understanding earned it the title of Microroaster of the Year for 2006 by Roast Magazine.

“I think that it is that people associate our company and our brand with quality and integrity.  We haven’t folded on that.  We haven’t grown at the expense of quality,” said Tony Dreyfuss, co-owner of the father and son business, which has 24 employees and took in $2.5 million in revenues last year.

The thirst for quality is filtered down to Metropolis’s customers through education programs run by Tony and his father, Jeff Dreyfuss.

On Memorial Day "I was training a wholesale customer until one in the morning.  I spent five hours just talking about coffee, and about differences in coffee and preparations of espresso, just with their rank-and-file baristas,” Tony Dreyfuss said.

“What we want them to do is to care as much about the coffee as we do.”

For Tracie Dahlke, owner of The Unicorn Café at 1723 Sherman Ave. in Evanston, that dedication to education translates into a deeper relationship between Metropolis and its customers.

"What I really like about them is that they look at us as an individual.  We aren’t just another account,” she said.

Dahlke and her employees have had multiple training sessions at Metropolis, and for her it's an added incentive that she can provide her employees. When the employees get a chance to learn about latte art and espresso making, they know they have accomplished something, she said.

Metropolis opened in 2003, after Jeff and Tony Dreyfuss had built their passions for coffee in very different ways.  Jeff was an Indonesian language professor at the University of Washington who spent his free time learning the inside scoop on the coffee business from a friend who was the coffee buyer and taster at his favorite café.  Tony was a cab driver who landed a job at a Peet’s Coffee & Tea Inc. store in Portland, Ore. While there, he learned how to roast coffee from “maybe the best”, said Jeff.

The two bought a coffee roaster from a show and had it shipped to Chicago where they had decided to open their store. (Jeff Dreyfuss said that the first time he saw the roaster in Chicago, it had the claw of Traveling Sue, the famous Tyrannosaurus rex exhibit, draped over it, as the roaster had been kept in storage at the Field Museum.)

“We picked a location which I thought, when I first saw it, it was not real obvious to me that it would be a real great location – it’s not in the middle of Lincoln Park, or Lakeview or downtown,” Jeff Dreyfuss said. “However, I had intuition that we would have several revenue streams here where it might be more monolithic than in Lincoln Park or Lakeview.”

While the company may be a giant in the community, it remains a small player on the world market for coffee, something that Jeff Dreyfuss said helps them.

“It is very difficult for a Starbucks or for a very large specialty coffee roaster, say over 2 million pounds or so, to buy one micro lot which is incredibly good coffee because there’s not enough of it there,” he said. “And a smaller roaster can take advantage of those inequalities in economy of scale.”

“It is not like they are skimping on the coffee that they buy but they have tens of thousands of stores to service,” Tony Dreyfuss said. “How are they possibly going to offer this micro lot from Colombia to 25,000 stores worldwide? They’re not.”

Therefore, for Tony, it all comes back to the education that the company provides.

“We can hopefully educate our customers well enough that we are doing a good enough job with the coffee to say ‘Trust us, It will be great.’”

However, for many of the customers, Tony Dreyfuss said, that involves starting them at the beginning, “educating … on why a light-roasted fresh coffee is necessarily better than dark-roasted coffee. Just breaking through that first barrier, let alone the varietal differences."

He added that coffee roasters are behind in knowing how to educate the end consumers compared with the beer and wine industries and that as an industry they have much to learn.

Despite the advantages of being small, the company has outgrown its original space. Soon, all wholesale operations will be moving to what the owners call “The Garage” at 5545 N. Clark St., in the Andersonville neighborhood.

Tony Dreyfuss said that over the next five years, that will allow Metropolis to roast four times as much coffee as it does today or more. Currently the company has demand for its beans in the range of 200,000 to 250,000 pounds.

Unfortunately, it means removing the roasting operations from the café.

“I hope that people will not be too disappointed to not smell coffee roasting anymore in the café,” Jeff Dreyfuss said.

Jeff Dreyfuss has a philosophical view of the coffee business, something shared by his son, who holds a degree in philosophy.  It all comes back to the café, an institution that both partners expressed a great affection for.

“I wanted a real community café,” Jeff Dreyfuss said. “All revolutions that I know of have started in coffee cafes, including our own.”

Tony Dreyfuss expands the community even wider, “including the coffee farmers, the producers. Everybody should be part of that club ideally if we are doing are job right which we are learning how to do as we go along.”

“We always want to keep that as part of what we do where there’s as little distance as possible between us and our customers,” Tony Dreyfuss said. 

“That personal connection, I think, makes a big difference."