The Roasterpreneur Series focuses on inspiring up-and-coming roasters and offers advice on running a successful roastery. This week, we spoke to Tony Dreyfuss, the founder of Metropolis Coffee Company, which opened its doors on the first day without having trained anyone to make espresso.
“On our first day in business in December 2003, I arrived at 4:30 am,” Tony explains. “I calibrated the grind, brewed the first batch, turned on the music, and we were in business!”
Three hours later, Tony came to the realisation that he had not trained anyone else to make espresso drinks. “True story. I overlooked that. I wasn’t able to visit the bathroom that day, we were so busy!”
Almost 20 years later, Tony can laugh about that slight oversight, as Metropolis Coffee Company, based in Chicago, went on to find enormous success.
He admits the Metropolis team had a lot of help developing the café and roastery. The brand has gathered expertise from the likes of David Schomer, a cofounder of Espresso Vivace, who taught the team latte art, and Dan Donohue from Caffe Vita, who helped them develop their first core blends.
More so, coffee author, Scott Rao, prior to publishing his first book, helped Metropolis Coffee Company develop their cappuccino technique.
“We’ve been incredibly lucky,” Tony admits. “We stood on the shoulders of giants.”
Discovering who you are as a brand
Metropolis Coffee Company began as a distinct and truly original brand.
“We are passionate about people, community, and coffee – in that order. Our spaces, products, and branding reflected that.
Prior to opening the business, Tony and his father, Jeff arrived at the café/roasterie to find a comic book nestled in the vestibule. A local graphic designer had developed a comic where she was a superhero who loved coffee, and she said that she would work for coffee.
“When we asked her in, she interviewed us about our brand and what we liked. We circled around art déco, art nouveau, and absurdist illustration,” Tony explains.
Only hours later, she returned with their first logo – a beautifully complicated design, inspired by the Parisian metro gates, the Chicago skyline, and the original illustration from the 1927 film Metropolis.
“The name ‘Metropolis’ is derived from the Platonic word Polis, meaning ‘city state’. We extrapolate and interpret Metropolis to mean community, a collection of city states. Metropolis has meant and still means community in every sense of the word,” Tony says.
In 2007, Metropolis Coffee Company won Roast Magazine’s Roaster of the Year after entering the contest on a whim.
“That win made us feel like something we were not – a leader in a movement,” Tony says. He admits many “crappy” decisions came shortly after the win.
“For instance, we stopped offering dark roast coffee, limited the size of our beverages to smaller sizes only, and we became very technical about brewing coffee,” Tony explains. “We decided we needed to tell people how to love coffee. It was dictatorial and totally wrong-headed.”
More so, Metropolis Coffee Company redeveloped their brand around a modernist San Francisco aesthetic. “It became very similar to a lot of other coffee companies at the time, such as Blue Bottle Coffee, Ritual Coffee Roasters, and Sightglass Coffee.”
Tony believes that during that time, the team made many decisions that were the opposite of the Metropolis ethos.
“We had it backwards: believing the value of coffee is somehow contained within the beans, rather than how the coffee can benefit those along the supply chain, from producer to roaster to retailer to consumer,” Tony says.
Despite those missteps, Metropolis Coffee Company grew tremendously as a wholesaler over the next several years as interest in specialty coffee grew.
The brand scaled up its operations, first moving into a 10,000-square-foot location, and then into an 18,000-square-foot facility.
However, towards the end of 2016, Tony admits the growth had plateaued and actually began to diminish. “I believe it was because our brand was no longer distinguishable from the dozens of other roasters that had opened in Chicago and elsewhere,” he says.
“We were no longer new, nor were we original. We had become just another 2nd rate 3rd wave company, hocking the same micro lots and precision brew methods, with roughly indistinguishable messaging and graphic design.”
Then, in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and when Metropolis Coffee experienced a 75% drop in revenue overnight, they took it as an opportunity to return to their roots.
Metropolis Coffee Company comes full-circle
In the last two years, Tony reveals they have rebranded their packaging back to something original, relaunched the café to better serve the community, and built a new website that offers wholesale orders.
“We’ve also developed a shelf-stable black cold brew that tastes amazing, and installed a high-speed roller grinder and frac-pack line that runs certified compostable packaging.
Perhaps most strikingly, Metropolis has purchased and installed America’s first compostable capsule packing line.
“We are now producing certified compostable capsules at scale,” Tony explains. “We are excited to help usher in sustainable specialty coffee capsules in America. It is still pretty new year, but interest is growing. We’re packing both for ourselves and co-packing for other brands.”
Metropolis Coffee has come a long way from when Tony’s father was running French presses of freshly roasted coffee around the café.
“While that was a magical time, the first two or three years took at least 20 years off my life,” Tony laughs.
“I wish I had spent more time training, delegating, and developing systems,” he adds. “I also wish we had been strong enough to just be ourselves. However, I think that it is normal in adolescence to doubt yourself and follow the herd.”
Tony’s key piece of advice for roasters who are breaking into the industry is to remain humble and remember who you work for. “Be yourself, and take care of your basic needs. You can’t live on caffeine and adrenaline for very long.”
Finally, Tony stresses the importance of training someone else to make lattes before you open your doors, rather than after.
Did you enjoy this edition of our Roasterpreneur Series? Learn more about running a successful coffee roastery by reading our interview with Cycle Roasters.
Or, discover our Roaster of the Week series, which includes interviews with Roastworks, Onyx Coffee Lab, and Gringo Nordic.
Photo credits: Metropolis Coffee Company