Reflections on working with the Modbar espresso machine

The Modbar is still fairly new to us: a modular espresso machine with all the major hardware hidden under the counter leaving only the beautiful group head ‘taps’ and steam wands visible above the counter. Aaron Towlson spent last summer working behind the UK’s first Modbar at ‘Relax, it’s only…’ in Old Street and tells us his thoughts...

The bar I worked on was designed to make both coffee and alcohol service simple and efficient, which Modbar made straightforward. It was interesting to see how elements of what we consider two completely different social spaces (coffee shops and bars) combine and influence each other. Take cleanliness – an area baristas do fall short on compared to the guys at a high-end cocktail bar. This may be because we usually have the espresso machine to shield our spilled shots and spit cups. This was not an option with the Modbar. After pulling a shot and purging the group, the drip tray was covered in grinds for all to see. This encouraged us to wipe down the area immediately every time, because we knew the customers could see it.

Baristas are accustomed to working within a miasma of bar clutter unlike in bars and pubs. A large bulky espresso machine probably explains a lot of this, given how much you can hide under it or on top of it and the general visual distraction it provides. It doesn’t have to be this way, and owners buying Modbars will be clutter-conscious.

There were some interesting side effects. The sentence I heard the most was: “What do you guys have on tap?”

Also: “Can I get a coffee here?”

The problem with not having a conventional espresso machine sat on the bar? If people can’t see where the coffee might come from, they may assume you don’t serve it. This is a concern when potential customers are looking in through your window and deciding whether to step in. The line between customer expectation and innovation is guarantee-less. So, if you implement a Modbar setup, write the word COFFEE in really big letters somewhere. 

With the Modbar, staff roles become more fluid. In 90% of bars around the world, you can walk up to any part of the bar and be served by any bar staff. How often is this the case in coffee shops? We like our till, where customers can order with till staff, who then record the appropriate order and relay it to the baristas. It’s an obvious point of interaction, especially because baristas are usually hidden behind the espresso machine, looking busy. Without a machine in the way, customers treat ordering as they would in a bar – walking up to the staff or at n arbitrary waiting point. How do you implement systems in this scenario? Does the person taking the order always prepare the drinks, bring them to the customer and then take their money, bar style? Or do they relay the information to someone else who prepares the order, and then take the customer’s money?  Which way you go impacts on how you staff shifts – do you only have fully trained baristas on? If so, are they all able to offer equally good service?

Baristas will be familiar with the over-espresso machine chat. Saying hello to customers, straining your hearing to answer enthusiasts’ questions about today’s guest espresso, asking the boss how much holiday pay you’re owed as they make a hasty exit. It’s actually a part of the job that only advanced baristas are any good at. Having a Modbar made that issue redundant. It made life much easier to just say hello as customers approached the bar. No tip-toes to see beyond the stacked cups. I could shake hands with people between the group heads (though I got burned a couple of times by accidentally touching the rims – something to watch out for), pass drinks straight over. It was seamless, but there was definitely an added pressure of providing some theatre. It meant answering more questions about what I was doing, so staff must be capable of additional customer interaction.

I believe that the Modbar setup could provide a great coffee-serving addition to bars set up for other purposes, with the groups sitting innocuously alongside beer taps, out of the way, unobtrusive. Or on a bar that doesn’t directly offer a point of service interaction for pure aesthetic value, such as a table service restaurant. But in a high-volume shop where mess piles up quickly? Unless you build and train for that level of exposure it’s going to be nothing but off-putting and confusing for anyone just after a quick coffee. That bulky espresso machine taking up half the bar might not be so bad after all.

Experience the Modbar in Macintyre (Angel) serving Modern Standard coffee, Modern Society (Shoreditch) serving Assembly , Brass Rail (Selfridges) serving Origin coffee and Relax It’s Only (Old Street) which plans to reopen in Spring 2016.

February 17, 2016 — Best Coffee