As baristas meticulously measure grounds, add water and warm milk, some Conjure Coffee customers look on, transfixed by the ritual.
Their view is unobstructed by what owner Corey Waldron describes as “the big black box” or “the casket” that sits on many coffee shop counters, making it impossible to see what's going into each drink.
“It was mysterious,” Waldron said of the machine he operated more than a decade ago. “I started thinking of it as the Wizard of Oz – 'Don't look behind the curtain.'”
Waldron's desire to make gourmet coffee preparation more customer-friendly led the Fort Wayne man to design a unique take on the machinery that makes macchiatos, cappuccinos and lattes by placing the soda fountain-style hardware on the counter and the mechanics underneath.
The resulting company, Modbar, manufactures and sells coffee-making appliances to cafés in the U.S. and 20 countries around the world. Growth has been fueled by a partnership with Italian espresso-machine maker La Marzocco, which owns a majority stake in Fort Wayne-based Modbar. Waldron and co-founder Aric Forbing are minority shareholders.
For Forbing, there's no mystery behind the company's success.
“It's amazing seeing someone make your coffee by hand,” he said.
Chasing a dream
Forbing and Waldron spent free time in their early 20s in a jazz jam band called Copious Stimuli. Between sets, the local guys drank beer and talked about life.
Waldron shared his dream of creating a more customer-friendly coffee bar experience. As a barista at Old Crown Coffee Roasters, Waldron didn't like ducking behind a brewing machine to fill an order. He wanted customers to understand why, in his opinion, higher-end coffee is worth the extra expense.
Keep in mind, Waldron said, this was before Starbucks came to town and locally roasted coffee became a craze.
As luck would have it, Waldron was dreaming out loud to someone who could make a prototype. Forbing, who was working at Ward Corp.'s local foundry, knew how to make molds and machine holes into metal castings. Waldron had sketches dating back to 1999.
“Aesthetics were highly, highly important,” Forbing said. “But also making great coffee was important.”
The bandmates formed a partnership and, along with financial backers including Todd Ellis, founded Jet Steam in 2007.
Waldron and Forbing took their prototype to a trade show, which exposed them to various competitors' products. Although their product was more technologically advanced than many others, the inventors still found opportunities for improvement.
Waldron noticed that not only were other products taking up lots of counter space, the coffee machines were also one-size-fits-all. It was impossible to move the espresso brewing arm to another location or add an extra steaming wand.
Waldron realized he could allow café owners more flexibility by making and selling each component separately. Components range from $7,000 to $10,000 each.
“You choose,” Forbing said, “how big and how creative you want your bar to be.”
Making of Modbar
Jet Steam picked up some steam, but the company didn't have enough money to push through the growing pains many startups experience, Waldron said.
Waldron and Forbing met executives with La Marzocco. The Italians loved the concept but put the brakes on expansion after the 2009 economic crisis.
In 2012, they jointly decided the time was right to launch Modbar. The partners started by buying the assets of Jet Steam and dissolving that company. La Marzocco, which was founded about 90 years ago, brought its experience and capital to the table for Modbar.
“They're an incredible partner,” Forbing said.
As the company has grown, Modbar has built an international network of technicians trained to maintain and service its products. Twice each month, the company holds two-day classes on installation and maintenance at Modbar headquarters, 628 Leesburg Road.
About 15 people work in the building, where the products sold in North, South and Central America are assembled. The local production line averages two modules each day. Modbar items bound for European and other customers are made in Italy.
Because each country sets its own safety and sanitary standards, the machines have to be tweaked before shipping to comply with the rules. The products also are wired for differing electrical grids.
Every Modbar system gives baristas control of water pressure and temperature. Customers include Fortezza Coffee at 819 S. Calhoun St. and, of course, Conjure Coffee.
Forbing, 37, devotes his time to research and Modbar product development. Modbar plans to unveil a new product at the Specialty Coffee Association conference next week in Seattle.
Waldron, 37, spends his days running Conjure Coffee, the café and roasting business sitting on the triangle of land where Columbia Avenue and St. Joseph Avenue merge.
As a visionary, he was bored by the nuts and bolts of running a manufacturing operation.
Waldron wanted to keep his hands in coffee and create a café that reflects his design aesthetic. The café, which opened in August 2016, is bright, open and airy. White walls allow a rotating gallery of local artwork to shine. The minimalist décor includes plants and wooden counters and tables.
“I just tried to take all my favorite elements and bring them into one space,” he said, adding that he has visited cafés around the world while on Modbar business.
Janet Badia, a regular customer, described Conjure Coffee as “a welcoming space.”
“One reason we come here is we like to support local businesses instead of chains,” she said.
Despite his devotion to Conjure Coffee, Waldron maintains a relationship with Modbar and looks forward to working with the La Marzocco team on future designs.
Unlike Forbing, who fuels his days by drinking two to six cups of coffee, Waldron limits himself to two.
It's a matter, he said, of quality over quantity.