Company spotlight: Modbar

A combination of entreprenurial spirit and pioneering design and technology, Modbar coffee equipment has carved a unique path for itself in a hugely competitive market segment. Tina Nielsen tracks the journey

Having made its name with a less-is-more’ approach, Modbar is known in the industry as the slick and smart coffee making equipment, stored under the bar, and served from handles, similar to those dispensing beer.

With its pioneering approach to the design of coffee equipment and the coffee experience, Modbar has gone from being a novelty, a slightly ‘out-there’ concept to a mainstream name with equipment that inspires competitors.

The story begins with doodles on a napkin in a bar where friends and co-founders Aric Forbing and Corey Waldron had met up to plan the product. They were excited about developing the concept of a see-through espresso machine.

Forbing, today the technical product manager for La Marzocco, got hooked on the metal casting industry after taking a summer job at an aluminium foundry when he was growing up. “I watched the old craftsmen build the wooden versions, then make the casts and the tooling to finish the metal castings and the whole process just floored me,” he recalls.

The summer job led to him taking an apprenticeship at the foundry and he worked his way up, getting involved in CAD work along the way. The idea for branching into coffee-making equipment came through his love of music. “I played in a band with a friend who worked in coffee, and he had always wanted to make a see-through coffee machine,” says Forbing. “After talking about it for a while, and him introducing me to specialty coffee, we started building it.”

This was the mid-noughties and Fort Wayne, Indiana did not have the coffee scene that other cities enjoyed at the time. “Corey was the only specialty roaster in town and he was always interested in showing customers the process and what made the coffee special – talking about the origin, where it came from and just opening up that theater of what happens behind the machine,” he says. “[As a customer] you hear some noises from the steam and from the mill, but you never actually see what is happening, so he wanted to change that.”

Next came some sketches of what the machine would look like, drawn while chatting in the bar around the corner, and early work started in the foundry where Forbing was working – he was allowed to use equipment on evenings and weekends. The result was a rough design of their first espresso machine and the launch of their company, which would be called Jet Steam Espresso.

Forbing made all the tooling to make the casts and he and Waldron ended up building a couple of these first machines, which they took to Long Beach, California to the California Specialty Coffee Association show in 2007.

At this point they had been tinkering with the design and the build since 2005. “We had some really rough prototypes in Corey’s apartment, we’d made these wooden arms and we were building boilers,” says Forbing.

It was the first iterative step in the journey to figuring out how to build an espresso machine, but it was clear that it would take a bit longer to persuade the market they were on to something. “We expected people to just embrace the concept, which we thought was perfect, but it turned out people were more interested in a more traditional machine,” he says. “It was a struggle to figure out a way to serve the market better and how to grow the company on our limited funding.”

Best of both

At that point they started to consider the modular approach, attempting to understand how people might want to configure the machines in different ways if they wanted two or three machines. “We thought; why don’t we split everything up and try to have the best of both, enabling them [customers] to tailor the equipment to their bar and their workflow and piece them all together.”

That’s when Modbar – from modular bar – as a concept was born. Forbing and Waldron built the prototypes to show off the idea and travelled to Seattle to present it to La Marzocco. After a successful pitch, Modbar was welcomed into the La Marzocco fold.

Guido Bernardinelli, CEO of La Marzocco, was involved in the early talks when his company approached the acquisition of Jet Steam. “We met these two founders, Corey and Aric, in the US and they went to speak to our CEO at the time [Kent Bakke] and the president of US operations. After careful consideration, we decided to buy the company,” he recalls. “What I liked about it then, and still like to this day, is not only the design, but that you see the hands of the barista crafting a drink for each customer,” he says. “And the operator can create their own modular bar that fits with how they want to disperse the crowd in their coffee shop.”

At that point Forbing and Waldron had been speaking with La Marzocco, an established brand in the coffee equipment market who had shown an interest in Jet Steam and visited during the development work on the first iterations of the machine. “They were always supportive, and the relationship helped to found Modbar when we changed gears,” says Forbing. “Getting to know Kent Bakke who was the CEO of La Marzocco at the time was great; he is an absolutely extraordinary person who was supportive in all that we did, I really did appreciate his help.”

The pair launched Modbar as a company with La Marzocco in 2012 and started working in earnest with the engineering team through to 2017/2018 when development work began on the Modbar espresso machine.

A strong alliance

According to Forbing, before joining La Marzocco they were attempting to build a machine for the coffee geek that could do everything at once. “Then in 2018 when we launched the Modbar system we decided to take a step back and make something that was a little bit simpler and more approachable,” he explains. “That was the first machine we designed with the La Marzocco engineering team, and it was awesome for me to work with a team of great professionals.”

The bigger brand was a natural fit for Modbar. “La Marzocco has always been super innovative and embraces technology, it was a good match,” he says. “We were always a separate brand, but I think partnering with them, especially as time has moved on and the product has developed, it has been a great relationship that has helped to strengthen the equipment.”

A great advantage has been the fact that Modbar can incorporate a lot of the technology already used in La Marzocco machines. “It has been fantastic,” says Forbing.

Despite the support it took a while to gain traction in the market, says Bernardinelli: “People laughed us out of the room thinking we were disruptively crazy, but today there are three or four competitors doing the same thing, which is a form of flattery, and we are, together with them, creating a larger opportunity and a larger market.”

At first Forbing wasn’t sure how to feel about the competition. “Now I enjoy seeing that the concept has inspired other companies – we were just doing some weird stuff and we didn’t know if people would like it, but the concept has been proven now,” he says.

The coffee making equipment market is a congested one; what does it take to stand out?

According to Bernardinelli you need to get everything right to succeed. “You have to have a different design, a better performance of the product, better thermal stabilities, better service, better distribution systems, better testing labs, and more technicians that continuously work to refine the components,” he says.

Forbing and his team went from doing most of the work in house on his Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) machine to sourcing suppliers and scaling the operation up. “We went from the beginning where everything was handmade; kind of bespoke and made to order, to producing something on a much larger scale,” he recalls. “In particular we designed the Modbar AV with La Marzocco; they had a lot of experience in building things for scale and then just incorporating more of the proven components they have been using for almost 100 years.”

Since joining forces, the production and manufacturing of Modbar machines have gradually been moved away from the US and to Italy, for pragmatic reasons. “We had to ship a lot of components to the US and then ship machines back to Europe. We ended up investing in infrastructure that we already had in place,” explains Bernardinelli.

Reflecting on the journey he and Waldron have been on since the start, Forbing says all of it has been a highlight. “From day one I’ve been proud of everything we have done along the way,” he says. “I think we are definitely in that high-end design category; our product fits well for people who are looking for a unique design and interested in changing the interaction of the bar – and people seem to appreciate the engagement it offers; that they get to show off their craft.”

Still niche, still growing

Today Modbar has become associated with venues where coffee consumption is not the main objective; machines are found in luxury hotels; museums; offices; premium shops and high-end showrooms; iconic buildings; cocktail bars; tea, chocolate and matcha concepts; cruise ships and yachts.

“Locations where recognizing the value of offering a good quality coffee (or beverage), in an exclusive environment, is key,” explains business development director Giulia Spanio. “Specialty coffee is still important for us because we value the feedback and endorsement – and we love to taste great coffee on a Modbar – but strategically it’s not our go-to segment.”

Responsible for spearheading the development of Modbar worldwide, Spanio joined La Marzocco in 2018 and since 2020 her focus has been on how to strengthen Modbar as an independent brand. “Our objective is to redefine the identity and personality of the Modbar brand, to define what segments to target, identify the relevant stakeholders to talk to and successfully communicate, promote and explain Modbar to potential clients,” she explains.

So, the shift from the early days of doing something so unfamiliar to the industry is clear. Spanio describes Modbar’s position in the market as “still niche” but adds that it has grown in personality and awareness in recent years. “The customers who approach us are visionaries who want to use Modbar to create unique and exceptional spaces,” she says.

“Coffee consumers today demand seamless, customer-oriented café experiences that feel sleek and deliver on quality and at the same time designers and architects are pushing the boundaries of what a café should and can look like.”

As for the future Forbing says there are many things they want to do. “I think we are in a good spot to do some really cool things with the folks that we get to work with at La Marzocco,” he says. “I am really proud of the team that works on it – we have an amazing team that helps simplify the process of selecting the equipment and installing it and helping customers realize this vision.”

Bernardinelli, too, looks ahead with positivity. “I see a bigger growth opportunity than any other espresso coffee machines because the system is revolutionary, the design is appealing and it is very desired,” he says. “For a small company like ours, when you have a new product, it takes five years before everybody in the industry knows that it exists, let alone become acquainted with it. It is a little bit of a longer journey than we would have liked but it is growing steadily in every single market.”

As two brands that have embraced innovation and going beyond mainstream, the alliance of Modbar and La Marzocco has proven a match made in coffee heaven. As Forbing concludes: “I couldn’t be happier working with anybody else.”

Tina Nielsen

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