“This is not a coffee shop,” says the sign written on the counter wall where the coffees are prepared at Café Magrí in Belo Horizonte, a Brazilian city that boasts a deep tradition in coffee—Minas Gerais, where the city is located, is one of the biggest Arabica-producing states in the nation.
The message on the wall is not arbitrary. Café Magrí has taken this name in homage to the surrealist artist René Magritte, known for his juxtaposition of textual and visual signs. The cafe's owners—a couple consisting of a barista and a chef—decided to open the doors of this venue to question their own business model, which they have been running since February: is this more a coffee shop or more a restaurant?
Marília Balzani and Rafael Brito found a gap in Belo Horizonte’s food scene when they were thinking about what their business would look like. “When there is great coffee, the food is never good enough and vice versa,” says Balzani. “It has always been a hard task to find a place with really good food and also great coffee, so we decided to open a business that could have the best of both worlds.”
The couple joined their skills to create a new concept—indeed a missing one—in the city. From the union of their specialties, Magrí was born as a mixture of cafe and coffee shop, as she explains, serving from a variety of coffee methods (such as V60, AeroPress, and many others) and a broad diversity of food. Balzani used to work at coffee farms and also in some of the city’s coffee shops while Brito was part of the kitchen staff of some of the best restaurants in Minas Gerais’ capital.
At his small kitchen, Brito prepares some dishes that run away from the snack foods usually served in coffee shops. More than pão de queijo (cheese bread made from cassava) or pieces of cake, he has created sandwiches, salads, and other dishes with a chef's approach so the customer can “go beyond in their choices,” as he says. In addition to brunch on weekends, Magrí offers lighter lunch options as well as bites that can be consumed all day.
It took the couple a year to open Magrí: during that time, Brito dedicated himself to creating and testing recipes, while Balzani went in search of their coffee. Drawing on her background, she zeroed in on the region of Mata de Minas, the home of coffees she'd fallen in love with when she participated in the Brazilian AeroPress Championship there last year and visited farms and producers. In partnership with a local roaster, Roast, she oversees the entire roasting process to ensure the best coffee comes to Magrí.
“At first I had thought of doing the roasting myself, but I didn’t think I could devote so much time to it with the opening—and also we would not have room for a roasting machine. So I've partnered with Roast and they've been great partners, since they let me follow up the whole roasting process, helping to create roast profiles, etc,” she explains.
In addition to the convenience of sourcing coffee from Mata de Minas, Balzani was drawn to the diversity of flavor profiles coming out of the region, allowing them to offer variety to their clientele. “We are serving beans from four completely different producers, which range from those with higher acidity to more balanced ones,” she explains.
What's more, Magrí is close enough to its source farms that occasionally the producers come visit the coffee shop.
“They are near, so it's been a great exchange when they come. Our goal is not only to work closely with our customers, but also with our producers. Everything we serve here is either homemade or bought from small local producers,” Balzani points out. “So we can transform a little what is around us, our environment,” she concludes. A coffee shop is never just a coffee shop, as Magritte would say.
Rafael Tonon is a freelance journalist based in Brazil. Read more Rafael Tonon on Sprudge.
Photos by Cadu Passos unless otherwise noted.