The Extra Kilometer by Zach Zulauf

Zach Zulauf, owner of New Wave Coffee, crossed international borders on an emergency coffee mission for Metropolis Coffee Company.

These are his recollections of that event:

I always liked to think that I would be the type of guy to fly to a foreign country with less than twenty-four hours notice, if asked. We all like to think that we’re that kind of person. But it’s rare that circumstances align to test the theory.

Last weekend I got the text: A Metropolis account in Montreal was out of coffee–the shipment was caught up in customs at the border. Metropolis needed to hand-deliver some beans. Tony’s wife was ready to go into labor at any moment. Would I be willing to head to Montreal with 50 pounds of coffee? Why yes, yes I would.

My shop, New Wave Coffee in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, is new enough that I still remember the fever-dream of those first few months with an uncomfortable level of clarity. It’s a terrifying time.

Of all the thousands of possible calamities that zip through a young owner’s head while they aren’t sleeping at night, running out of coffee has to be at the top of that list. You can run out of milk. The electricity can go out. Limbs can be broken, you can be short staffed. There are endless horrible scenarios. But the shame of being a coffee shop without coffee holds a level derision above all else. So, after a quick hunt for my passport and some hacker-esque travel agency [work] by Tony, and some Saturday morning roasting by Ben Crowell, I was headed to O’Hare with a rigid, blue-plastic suitcase crammed with ten five-pound bags of extremely fresh roasted coffee.

On the flight there, I took a liberal interpretation of the Canadian customs questionnaire in answering that the coffee was neither a “commercial good” nor a “food or plant in whole or in part.” (I mean, is a coffee bean still really plant life post-roasting? And a commercial good? It’s more of a raw material. Sort of like lumber, right? They don’t ask about that). I told the guy I was here to check out the Montreal coffee scene. I was passed through, prompting me to text Tony that “Next time we should try this with cocaine.” Tony texted back, “Are you sure that we didn’t? Have you opened one of the bags?”

People like to say that Canada is bilingual. I don’t believe this is true. As far as I can tell, it’s actually two monolingual countries uncomfortably bonded together. Montreal speaks French. I do not. Hoché Café, owned by Dominic, is located in the “French Neighborhood” of an already quite French city, next to the Olympic stadium. Luckily, Dominic’s English is fantastic, thus sparing us from the desperate levels of my mangled Spanish.

I ended up talking with Dominic for over two hours. His shop is about a month old, and he is in the throws of ecstasy and anxiety which that entails. I could see a lot of myself in him. He handled himself remarkably well. He was far more composed than I was at a similar point. But I think I could see the similar sleepless nights. The rush of anxiety with every single new customer. The rage and terror of every sub-standard shot. It was comforting to see so many attributes that I had displayed myself, and yet realize that I had moved beyond much of them. I don’t think I had realized until that night how much I had gone through in opening my shop, until I sat down with someone else going through the same thing. It was magical to see where I had been, and to know that I wasn’t there anymore.

Dominic and I had a great conversation about the “Art vs. Science” of espresso. We talked about how an aesthetic informs the way you choose to pull a shot. And about how the science of the perfect shot–22grams and 25 seconds–doesn’t begin to tell the full story. It’s minutiae that only a handful of people get into that way, but we were two of the right people.

I told Dominic that he would be very successful. I believe that he will. He’s got the passion and the attention to detail–the rest will come.  I know, in a year’s time, he’ll be moving hundreds of pounds per week. He’s got a phenomenal trajectory. I told him the most important thing is to let the mistakes come, because they will. It’s cheesy, but mistakes make you better. Let your employees make mistakes, because it’s the only path to making good employees. And remember that, as an owner, the goal for yourself isn’t to be a player, but to be a coach. I don’t know if Dominic heard me that night. I know he listened. And I think he got it. But I’m sure someone told me that advice at some similar point, and I’m equally sure I was in no place to hear it.

As I flew home, there were so many images of Montreal still in my head. It’s a remarkable city.  But one of the things that I couldn’t help but wonder was whether Tony had sent me because he knew that I needed to spend a little time with Dominic, or maybe because Dominic needed to spend a little time with me? I couldn’t say for sure. But I had my suspicions. As Dominic said plainly at the end of our night, “You sign up with Metropolis for the coffee, but you stay because of the service.”

Zach Zulauf
New Wave Coffee
Chicago

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