Jersey City, New Jersey may not be on the tip of everyone’s lips as an international meeting place, a hub from which to pursue the American dream, or even a mecca of specialty food and drink. But when forces from the United Kingdom and, sure, southwest Ohio join together to open what might be the Garden State’s highest quality coffee experience thus far, you’ve got to suspect they’re on to something we’ve missed. Enter Modcup.
When Travas Clifton and Justin Hicks met at a Willem Boot coffee course in California, they’d come from fairly different worlds. Clifton, originally from Birmingham, UK, had been working as an art dealer until the birth of his daughter. While briefly living in Toronto, he was shown the gospel about coffee—fresh coffee—and caught the bug. Hicks, on the other hand, was a radiology student in Ohio, moonlighting as a barista at Boston Stoker while reconsidering his career path.
“I dropped out and bought a coffee roaster with the remaining money that I could get from myself and my father… it was all basically by wasting my time in college,” said Hicks.
He met Clifton, who was actively looking for a business partner, at the Boot course in San Francisco, and the two launched Modcup—despite Clifton being the mod and Hicks being, for better or worse, the rocker. “He took a giant leap of faith,” says Clifton, “and then we became business partners.”
Clifton’s original idea—to provide the citizens of Jersey City with steady coffee from a converted French bread truck—came to fruition just this month after years of planning and retrofitting Modcup’s 1972 Citroën H Van. We previewed the project in these pages during the 2014 edition of Build-Outs of Summer.
“I wanted to get a vintage bread truck to reinforce the idea that fresh coffee is roasted,” said Clifton, going back to his personal “aha” moment of honoring coffee as a fresh, short-lived potable.
Today, the company’s holding down the Jersey City scene in three locations: a diminutive cafe in the Jersey City Heights neighborhood, with window treatments by local artists; a pop-up cafe within The Kitchen at Grove Station restaurant; and of course, the bread truck.
The mobile cafe, fitted out with custom black walnut wood panels and a bumped-out front ceiling, is equipped to deliver espresso, pour-over, and vanilla-infused nitrogen cold brew on tap. It also, almost improbably, features a 2.2-kilo Ambex coffee roaster—used for demos and as a conversation piece, mostly, and to drive home the idea of coffee’s freshness. Though it’s mobile, you’ll find it regularly parked weekdays just outside the Hyatt Regency Jersey City on Exchange Place—just steps from the PATH train to that other city across the Hudson.
Further uptown, the pair’s Jersey City Heights cafe sits across the street from Riverview-Fisk Park, which more or less serves as an extended patio for the tiny cafe. “With the exception of the bar, seating at the Heights cafe is designed inward-facing, to encourage interaction,” says Clifton. “We passed on Wi-Fi, and it worked for us,” says Hicks. “It forced people to talk, recognize their actual community.” Like the bread truck, the shop manages to fit a fair amount of gear into a small space, from the La Marzocco Linea Classic, Mazzer grinder and Kyoto-style slow-drip tower to a bevy of pour-over devices, a nitrogen cold brew keg, and a sweet globe chair. Custom album artwork tweaked to incorporate “Modcup” or “moden coffee” decorates the walls, and hints at the space’s Sunday night DJ sets and convivial atmosphere.
“Up here’s where we focus more on the coffee, so we have four varieties on bar all the time,” says Hicks of the space, where every coffee is brewed to order.
In addition, the pair operate a small satellite takeaway coffee counter with The Kitchen at Grove Station, a New American restaurant near the Grove Street PATH train. In late summer, they plan to open an 1,800-square-foot roasting and production facility next to the Mana Contemporary arts complex, a massive studio, exhibition and general art-world-hive in Jersey City. Sourcing coffees at the moment via Cafe Imports and Coffee Shrub, as well as fostering a couple of direct relationships in Central and South America, the pair will soon move their airflow-modded (get it?) Ambex YM-15 roaster to the new space, where they’ll be able to increase roasting production. It’s a needed step not only as Modcup expands, but as they continue to move their successful nitro cold brew, as well as growlers and fliptop bottles of cold-brew concentrate, which the coffee company encourages be used for everything from cold brew to cocktails to meat marinades.
“Modcup,” says Clifton, “came from the desire to turn JC’s old-world, dark-roast-loving coffee palates around to the idea of ‘modern’ coffee—a product treated freshly, and carefully.”
“The mod era in the late 50s was the first time that the UK had gone back to drinking coffee,” says Clifton. “If you look at the history of the UK, it was one of the first European nations to actively embrace it. It turned us from a capital of boozers to a finance city.”
“But then when I met Justin and he was the opposite, he was a rocker, we thought, brilliant mate, but we’re not fighting on the beaches of Brighton,” says Clifton.
So it’s all copacetic, then?
“We’re actually still split apart,” says Hicks of his business partner. “He’s from Birmingham and completely neglects that Black Sabbath are from there,” he laughs, then pauses seriously.
“I just want people to stand up for Jersey City.”
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge.com, based in Brooklyn. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.