Yesterday I ran an interview with Darko Arandjelovic and Xavier Alexander of Metric Coffee in Chicago, which just won a Good Food Award, given in San Francisco to artisanal food businesses of note. On and off I spoke with them for well over an hour, and a half hour of that was devoted to Arandjelovic telling me all the twists and turns of procuring and restoring a 1960s German-made, cast-iron roaster. Today it's their pride and glory, but for the first year they owned it, it was the nightmare of their existence, a constant source of problems that required infusions of cash they didn't have. At first glance the story—and I didn't even include a whole section about troubles at customs, in which the roaster was nearly auctioned out from under them—is a powerful warning against ever thinking you would want to start a business like theirs. Yet at the same time their vision for coffee roasting their way not only kept them going but attracted other true believers, too. In the end, it's a great little saga of the lives of entrepreneurs—and it makes you want to buy a cup of their coffee, in tribute.
Here it is, edited from Arandjelovic's longer and more circuitous telling.
Darko Arandjelovic: I was fortunate at Caffe Streets having different roasters sending me coffee, and I'd always ask, what's the roaster you use?
It took us six months to find our roaster. It's a 15 kilo, 1960s, cast-iron Probat from Germany. There's a black market for them. It's like dealing with kidneys and hearts; it's ridiculous. But it's the holy grail [of roasters] . . . they're rare. They make them now with a stainless steel drum [instead of cast iron]. It's something like Grandma's oven, when she makes the bread, it's perfect.
The guy we find to buy the machine from, it’s his grandfather—or great-grandfather—I think his great-grandfather made the company. And we’re like, oh, the last name, he finds the product in Switzerland, he ships to Germany, we have the before picture, they can rebuild it—this is the guy we want!
We find out when it's too late that the guy's banned from the company, when you say his name next to the product people are like, "No, we won't have anything to do with him." We go to the parts supplier—they're in Vernon Hills—and say, we need a belt, a chain, this or this, and they're like, no, we are not selling you anything. You bought a machine from that guy.
When the roaster came, apparently it was the same as in the "before" picture, even though it was supposed to be rebuilt. And it's much easier to rebuild in Europe because everything is metric and they have those parts. When I opened the crate, [Xavier] almost literally passed out. My wife is like, Is he going to be all right? I made a joke, I said, at least when we're done we're going to know this machine really well. And he looked at me and said, "Are you fucking kidding me?"
We actually gave the guy all this money to rebuild it, and we figured out that he never even saw it. I call the guy up and I say, look, we are not kids. Just tell me—did you ever see the roaster? "I've seen a lot of those roasters." No, listen to me, the roaster is in, like, a pile of sand.
So I worked in the coffee shop, and Xavier worked at his job, and then we'd go work on it past midnight every day for ten months. We get sick, we got family stuff—we're working. We rented this room in a garage, and the guy who was renting it to us kind of sympathized with us—it was sorrow. He had a machine shop, we could use his tools. He helped us a lot. He liked the roaster and what we were doing, and he just wanted to be part of it.
We had to strip it down. And, you know, it's [been running at] 400 degrees and it's 50 years old, those screws are not coming out easy. [The garage owner] says, oh boy, if 5 percent of those screws are coming out, you're lucky.
And the big body we leave till later, we buy a sandblaster, it's useless, it's like a hobby one, you put the hose in a bucket of sand—it took sooooo long. Then we find some people, they're selling metric screws [in Chicago], an old French couple—they're like my family now. I give them a list and say this is what we need, and they went out of their skin to find us everything we need. And slowly people hear what we've got, and you meet this guy and this guy.
We finally say to [the seller], look, can you give us some money back or do something for us? This is not cool. The coffee world is small and we're going to see each other again. So he says, I'll send you a guy who's an expert, who's going to check the roaster and tell you how much it's going to cost.
I call the guy, he says, OK, I'll stop by. I'm like, really? This is phenomenal. It's a human? The guy flies from the east coast and he says, OK, that is to be done, I'll make you a list, but I need money up front. I won't do anything because [the seller] owes me $11,000. I’m like, wait, we gotta pay? And that was it. We couldn’t hire the guy, but he kind of mentored us through fixing it up. He felt bad for us.
The first time we fire it up . . . it's bad. We don't know if this thing is going to work. It's like freezing cold in the garage, thank goodness we have the roaster to supply some heat. Xavier's wrapped like a ninja, trying to roast coffee. I say to him, someday we're going to laugh about this. "No, man, this is never going to be funny."
I don't know, maybe because I've been in construction I feel like I can make anything. So I can keep a sense that it's funny. But I learned a lot from him about patience, he gave me patience. I'm jumpy. I'm all, let's do this now! He's like, but let's do it right, steady, good energy. We never fall apart.
I remember texting him late at night because I cannot go to sleep, and I have to get up to go to Streets at 5 [AM]. And it's like 1 AM. And we spent the night not talking because we're so mad and pissed and hungry and tired, sanding the roaster next to each other, and now we're talking? But it's fun, he's like, ah man, we did good today, and I'm like, yeah, but it's a long way to go. And he says, "I know, but I gotta ask: you think this is ever going to work?" And I say, "Yeah, yeah, it's going to be the best roaster ever." He's like "OK, man, goodnight," and I say, "Goodnight, I’ll text you in four hours."
The good thing was me having Caffe Streets, then whatever we make, we can run right to Streets and try it. So right away we can decide if we like it, raising the temperature this much, lowering it, we try it first, that's the taste, see if we like what it is.
We added some extra controls, we have a gauge for the inside temperature, but they don't do anything new for you—you still have to have a chef to use it the right way. But just having the data means if you like the coffee, you can replicate it the same way. In the end it's all you, how you roast it. We added a drum and some motors for a cooling tray to spin, so when the beans come down, they cool off faster, instead of a pile that's continuing to roast.
Now people who know us and know the story come in and look at it and pat it—"Careful, it's hot!" We had a guy, from New Jersey, who actually used to work for that company in Germany, come and see it, and he loved it. He asked us if we ever wanted to do it again. I said, no, man, we are done—trust me!