It’s hard to see how something as simple as wanting to make brilliant coffee managed to get such a bad rap, but after years of working in cafes and roasteries around the world, Toby and Sam of Modus Coffee have set out to make great coffee an informal and inviting experience which anyone can love. Their cafe, which opened in Mt Lawley during the christmas season of 2016, is putting out some of the best coffee in Perth, but with none of the pretension we’ve come to associate with specialty and craft coffee. We reached out to Toby and Sam to talk about what they wanted to do differently when starting their own place, why they’re moving away from the ‘specialty coffee’ label, and why their take on modernity can have such an impact on coffee drinkers in Perth.
“We just wanted to serve good coffee in a way which was fun. We wanted to do away with the aprons and just make good coffee for everyday people we thought let’s just make it like our home, like you’re inviting someone to give them good hospitality at home, and it’s so good that it’s worth paying for.” said Sam of the driving philosophy behind Modus, “the way we wanted to differentiate ourselves from other people is to make really good coffee consistently, but not come away as pretentious or puritan. We really wanted to present in a casual, approachable way”
The design of Modus is simple without feeling minimalist or utilitarian: Coffee and plates are white, there is little clutter, but every surface is filled, the near ubiquitous Edison lightbulbs of fashionable coffee are nowhere to be found. Indeed, the coffee at Modus is a huge step from the established norms of Perth’s coffee scene, but Sam and Toby told me that these changes to the status quo have been much more digestible when presented without a hint of the the holier than thou mentality which can easily overcome experts of a product rife with misconceptions. Sam said of their approach to coffee “We’re looking at coffee as a beverage rather than putting it on a pedestal. Obviously it’s still an experience, it’s still amazing produce, still seasonal, still has terroir and should be approached with intentionality. But what we’re selling is still a beverage, it’s still something to drink.” and through this belief, Sam and Toby seem to have found a balance which has eluded much larger establishments.
At Modus you’ll find all of the hallmarks of the third wave scene, they constantly rotate between interstate and international roasters, a retail shelf offers aeropresses, hand grinders and sets of digital scales, and in the corner of the bar is an EK43, but this is all surprisingly well contained to one corner of the small space. There is a quiet confidence which is rare for people so dedicated to their product. Whilst they will gladly make anything ordered, their small, utilitarian menu offers price points for only black and white coffee. "The more traditional espresso menu changes at every cafe you go to. Every cafe does it differently, and it’s confusing. When you’re not transparent about how you’re making coffee, that’s how you get difficult and complex orders based on how someone made it once and what they decided to call it. We just wanted to simplify the ordering and simplify the price categories. At the end of the day, we’ll make you whatever you want, and we’ll make it the best that we can”
Sam and Toby feel that whilst they champion coffee, they find themselves distancing Modus from the ‘specialty coffee’ label, “I think specialty coffee really is more of a marketing term than anything else. It originally signified quality based on the score the coffee had got at origin, from a roasting sample.” Said Toby, "Wine is a great analogue, in that everything that goes into growing that product is what determines the quality of the end result, but there’s a hundred different ways to mess up that result in-between.” And so at Modus it is not about barista wizardry, but rather sourcing the best roasted coffee in the world, and doing the best they can to service that coffee, "It’s about creating transparency. The less you can do to mess with the beautiful fruit, the better we’ll be able to taste everything about where that fruit was grown.” Continues Toby, on both wine and coffee.
These may seem like bold statement, but Sam and Toby are able to use their years of combined experience in other cafes to nail down exactly what they wanted to do differently at their own place.
“We’re constantly reevaluating and seeing how we can make things better, we try to get everything down to numbers, even ahead of what we hear back from individual customers.” Said Sam. “We’ve got a big emphasis on modernity here, we wanted to see coffee move away from cultural trends and to actively try to do better all of the time”
When I asked them about the difference between owning their own place after so much time working in other cafes, they agreed that the work was more or less the same, but they cherish the opportunities to connect with their customers as business owners, which aren’t as possible when working for somebody else.
"I thought the milestones would be more exciting, when you clean the floor of your own place it won’t be so demoralising. But it’s so similar.” Said Toby, “The relationships we can build now are phenomenal, some of the people you can get to know as a business owner. Versus there’s only a handful of personal connections you can make when working for a place. But it’s hard to become friends with a person when you’re being paid an hourly rate to be nice to them.”
Coffee in Perth has never been better, but the appeal of cafes has always come from community and connection. Toby and Sam may well be sourcing and delivering the best coffee in Perth, and it’s amazing to see that they are doing so in service, rather than substitution, of that sense of community and connection. The guys have said that they are looking into future ventures which include roasting their own coffee, and opening new places, and we personally can’t wait to see what they do next.