Tomar un café means “have a coffee” in Spanish. But accept a friend’s invitation to “tomar un café” in Spain and you can expect beer, soda, and, not unreasonably, a plate of jamón to arrive at the table. Here, having a coffee is, semantically anyway, less about black liquid in white ceramic than social connection and shared relaxation.
This is what makes Monkee Koffee’s work both challenging and gratifying, according to Óscar González, co-owner of the Madrid cafe. “We are in our second year now, but it has [felt] like three years,” he says. “It has been very hard.”
Monkee, which opened in late 2014, is one of the city’s still small number of “third-generation” coffee shops—locals would call it “un café 3G.” Unlike most of the others, however, Monkee is in an untrendy, tourist-scarce neighborhood, Vallehermoso in the Chamberí district.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, classic soul and R&B bounce off the cafe’s brick walls and exposed pipes. Laptop-engaged 20-somethings speaking Spanish and English take to a large wooden communal table like capuchins to a tree. At the bar, they order espresso-based drinks made on a chorizo-red, two-group La Marzocco FB80 from a house blend by Spanish roaster Supracafé. To the right of three Mazzer grinders, customers pick up fresh, simple day fare, such as salads, yogurt stuccoed with granola, and a basic classic, toast with tomato puree. On the far end, glass tiers showcase baked goods, including a revelation in ovenly output: the carrot cookie.
González concedes that, when it had been time to brand Monkee and spread news of its debut, he and his business partner, Salvador Figueros, and their five fellow investors, benefited from the decades they’d all spent as professional marketers, mainly in the TV industry. González had also traveled enough to take inspiration from Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, and his favorite, Panther Coffee in Miami. But those examples only got them so far. In fact, the seven owners, operating under the company name Slow Koffee, began with outsize ambitions.
“We wanted to have enough people to be able to grow very fast,” González admits, “to have the economic resources to grow. But, as I told you, this [one] year felt like three, because we had wanted to launch some 20 to 25 [branches] and it had to go slower—because in Spain we don’t have the market.”
Securing real estate was not easy for a startup in Spain’s volatile economy, the group learned, with listed properties’ monthly rent jumping from €2,000 to €5,000 within a year. The space Monkee settled on had been abandoned for 20 years, González explains. This made it more affordable and also provided a blank slate for its industrial chic-meets-vintage schoolhouse aesthetic, which, though familiar in some corners of the world, still has Madrileños smitten. Building up a team required patience, too. Today Monkee has eight skilled baristas, six of whom spent the last year training on the job. (That González knows of just one La Marzocco repairperson in all of Madrid is yet another story.)
It’s true that Spain’s coffee culture has been slow to evolve. At an average eatery, you’ll usually find delicious, well-prepared food. But ask for a “solo” (a single shot of espresso) or a “café con leche” (something that once yielded a café au lait but which now appears to have transformed into a latte) and you’ll realize that 100 percent Arabica beans and fresh milk—or even milk that’s been steamed no more than once—are not givens. Italian behemoths Illy and Lavazza seem about as nationally endeared here as Zara and Chupa Chups. In more commerce-driven parts of town it’s easy to spot paper cups from Starbucks, in Spain since 2002.
So if Madrid might not yet be ready for a score of Monkees, the capital is due to get two more in 2016. And if the first one is a reliable indicator, they will be popular.
Earlier this year, public TV station Telemadrid broadcast a segment reporting that Monkee was “continuing to revolutionize the world of coffee.” Not long after, a headline in Spanish daily El Mundo suggested Monkee might be the best cafe in Madrid.
Though the oil and vinegar bottles at the sugar-and-napkin station probably get more attention than Monkee’s AeroPress or Hario V60, Monkee’s Third Wave trappings are unmistakable. The cafe hosts cuppings, and each month a new single-origin coffee is listed on a blackboard with a few lines detailing its provenance. The beans come from microroasters right in the city, such as Mokka, Guayacán, and Puchero Coffee Roasters.
“Actually, [for] now we are teaching coffee culture,” states Leticia Kerinec López, Monkee’s community manager. She points to the cafe’s communal table. “That’s something new here in Spain, because we never share a table,” she says. “The first time I saw that it was in London, and then in New York, but here I have never seen it.”
According to González, another exotic habit Spaniards are learning at Monkee is bussing their own used cups and plates. “These trays,” he says of the wooden boards nearby, “when [customers] finish, they take them up. Here, in Madrid, that’s incredible. My father, every day he [comes and] has a coffee, and afterward he takes [the tray up].” His mother, he adds, would be shocked to see him do this at home.
Monday morning had dawned a clientele far more diverse than the weekend’s. It well reflected González’s vision for Monkee. “This is for everybody,” he says. “There’s the risk in places like this that [people] won’t go because [they think]: ‘This place is not for me.’ No, we don’t want that. We want a place for everybody.”
To the un-Monday-morning-like beat of reggae, businesspeople talked shop, students seemed to battle their own pressing deadlines, retirees read, a child fed her doll, and, sure enough, González’s 81-year-old dad came in for his daily caffeine fix.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.