Metric Coffee is a cafe and roastery located on Chicago’s west side. As the mechanical nature of their name suggests, it takes many dedicated and precise hands to keep this business running. Darko Arandjelovic and Xavier Alexander founded Metric seven years ago with humble beginnings, refurbishing a 1960s German-made coffee roaster by themselves that they still use today. They both bring a different perspective to the team, but they’re united in their desire to be good stewards with the coffee they’re lucky enough to source worldwide.
Speciality coffee often gets a bad rap for being pretentious and unapproachable, but these preconceptions vanish when you talk to Darko and Xavier. The passion they have for this product is apparent, and what stuck with me is their desire to educate their customers on the coffee they offer. I recently saw Metric break down the cost of their coffee from what they pay the farmers they work with overseas, to what it costs to get here stateside, and so on. In their eyes, this sort of transparency is how you remain sustainable in an industry that oftentimes hides those sorts of numbers, which in turn harms the very people who grow this good. Now more than ever, it’s important that we support businesses that not only provide a great service, but businesses that put their moral principles before turning a profit.
How did you meet one another?
XA: I first remember meeting Darko back in 2011 when a group of us, some of the fellas from the roasting and sales team at Intelligentsia—my former employer—met up for drinks after work at a neighborhood bar. From there we struck up a conversation and got to know a little bit about him and where he came from. He had just launched his own cafe, Caffe Streets, which was at the time one of the first or if not the first multi-roaster cafe in the city featuring roasters like Heart, Verve, Sightglass, and Handsome, with Intelligentsia serving as their anchoring roaster.
DA: Xavier would stop by with trial roasts to Caffe Streets at the time and we would talk about coffees, extractions, brewing methods, tasting notes, etc. I would surprise him with random coffees from roasters from all over the states, and some from Europe, and we would geek out on them. Espresso was often a topic, too. Love towards quality and hospitality unite us, and through those many conversations dreams about Metric Coffee started.
How long have you been working in coffee?
XA: I started in coffee back in 2003 working for a small coffee roaster in Orlando, FL. At the time, if you roasted coffee, whether it was good or bad, it was still a step or five above anything else you could get at the time. After a few months of slinging cheesy frappe styled drinks with Caribbean names, I set my sights on the little five-kilo roaster in the corner. That’s the machine where all of the aromas are coming from, so the art of loading raw beans and watching them turn brown was both nostalgic and romantic—a feeling I still get from roasting coffee until this day.
Love towards quality and hospitality unite us, and through those many conversations dreams about Metric Coffee started.
DA: I grew up next to a cafe back home in Serbia and that social aspect, that energy stuck with me. Hospitality on one side and consumption on other. Since then I knew one day I would have a spot where I could recreate that atmosphere and make sure people feel good. A cafe with a focus on quality and ambiance. I signed the lease in August of 2010, and the rest is history.
There’s no shortage of coffee in the world. How does Metric Coffee differentiate itself from the rest of the specialty coffee community?
XA: True! Coffee, for some, is an industry that is seen as a cash grab, and for others it’s a way of life. In today's world with all of the crowdfunding and VC funding, it’s gotten easier to mount up a business that is sourcing “direct trade” with the newest technology and has the “best coffee” and, frankly, we don’t see that slowing down anytime soon. Regardless, if I had to say what makes us different, it would be the fact that we launched Metric independently without the aid of banks or VC funding. Is there anything wrong with the latter? Of course not. Plenty of great companies have launched in that fashion, but for us, it is important to have control over our brand and decisions. This means we buy the coffees we want and have control over our brand and culture without having higher-ups monitoring our finances. While we may not be a special gem in the grand scheme of things, I want the public to know that it is indeed possible to manage your dreams independently without losing control of what you value the most.
Coffee, for some, is an industry that is seen as a cash grab, and for others it’s a way of life.
DA: If you care about people, quality and hard work, you as a roaster have the responsibility to shape that voice. Through Xavier sourcing coffees, I’ve witnessed amazing dedication to ethos, inner love, and respect for the honest hard work on the producer's side. It takes endless cuppings and in-depth involvement on different levels. Highlighting all of that through branding and roasting is a very unique position to be in. Emphasizing tasting notes from different continents, producers, and varieties is what Metric is all about since day one. There are a lot of people who care and do an amazing job, and it is a pleasure seeing them around the globe and tasting their product. Thinking that we can make someone happy with our coffees, personally speaking, it’s like soul food.
Many continents around the world produce incredible coffee. Which continent produces your favorite coffee and why?
XA: This is a hard question—it’s like asking who is my favorite child. Still, flavorwise among my faves,as it is for many coffee pros, would be Ethiopia. The floral quality of the coffee grown in Ethiopia is unlike any other place in the world, but the same could be said about many East African countries that produce coffee. What is interesting about most of the countries in East Africa is that not a ton of effort goes into the process and yet the results are incredible, whereas other countries who put a ton of effort into their systems are lucky to get the cup quality that is near to the ones from this part of the world.
DA: We have great relationships with Honduras, Colombia, Peru, and now Guatemala. Our roaster Colin sourced tasty Costa Rican coffee that we were drinking this morning. It’s hard to decide on just one. I personally believe that besides good quality coffee a lot of different things go into consideration too: when you are drinking THAT coffee, how did you make it, who are you sharing it with?
Thinking that we can make someone happy with our coffees, personally speaking, it’s like soul food.
To roast your coffee you use a 1960s Probat that’s from Germany. What made this the roaster you wanted to use to roast your coffee over more modern machines?
XA: Looks-wise, they really don’t make them like this anymore, especially the Probat UG series with its steampunk aesthetic and cast iron build. These roasters were made to last, so their good reputation coupled with the roast quality made it a no-brainer for us to get into. Of course, for both Darko and I, in the beginning we ran into some challenges. The man who sold it to us wasn’t as legit as we had thought and after paying him upfront by wiring money to Germany, we barely heard from him. Around six months later he ended up sending the machine, which was all there but wasn’t refurbished, which meant we were dealing with a lot of old and rusted out parts on top of the worst canned paint job imaginable. We spent around three months and whatever money we could squeeze from our checking accounts to pay for parts and got her running and cooking without knowing a lick of what we were doing. Still, if we had to do it all over again, I think we wouldn’t change a thing.
How important is the service and hospitality side of things to your business?
XA: Outside of coffee quality, this is literally everything. As we all know, there is a plethora of roasters as there are coffee consumers, and consumers have a choice when it comes to where they spend their money. If quality service and hospitality along with great company culture isn’t at the root of your business, I am not sure that any business can thrive in the coming months or even years.
If quality service and hospitality along with great company culture isn’t at the root of your business, I am not sure that any business can thrive in the coming months or even years.
DA: Very important. I always remember when my grandmother told me: with bad tomatoes you will make bad salad, with great tomatoes you can make a great salad, and that is a choice. We chose to use great tomatoes and make a great experience that feels good to us. I am a big believer that honest passion goes a long way. The emotional part besides the quality of the product is my obsession. It’s almost equally important. They make a great combo and that's what excites me when I wake up to go to work everyday.
Your website reads “MADE BY HUMANS” with a video showing you both sourcing coffee overseas. What does that phrase mean to you and why are you so transparent about where your coffee is produced and the cost?
XA: We source coffee directly from established partnerships in Central and South America. To be more specific, we work in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Peru with people who I consider more than just business partners—these people are my friends. I am proud to share with our customers where our coffee comes from and how much we pay for said coffee. Why do I think this is of the utmost importance? In today’s world, we feel it is important to take any opportunity to educate consumers on the importance of paying more for coffee. Historically, the coffee price has been grotesquely low and unsustainable for coffee producers, so finding ways to communicate why every retail bag purchased helps us cover our costs, pay our employees a highly competitive living wage, insurance, and PTO along with paying high premiums for the coffees is what supports our “made by humans” narrative.
What’s a common misconception about the specialty coffee industry that you aim to correct through your day to day business?
XA: It is that it is coffee for everyone. There are so many parodies in the mainstream media that make fun of hipster baristas making frou-frou coffee, and the reality of it is the coffee you drink is a cash crop that supports a family on the other end of the supply chain. We believe if the public can have a better understanding of what it takes to produce a cup of coffee and find ways to learn more about how to brew it properly, it is something that can be enjoyed and revered in the same way wine and chocolate is.
DA: When the third wave in specialty coffee happened it became a new exciting thing, but disconnected with the masses. We try and we will continue trying to bridge that gap. People got excited and it wasn't easy to show what coffee can be without being labeled as a coffee snob or hipster. For everyone who is wheeling to try amazing coffee it's our responsibility and pleasure to make it approachable. Educating customers is something that here at Metric happens naturally.