(From Crains Chicago Business, by Shia Kapos)
Tony Dreyfuss, co-founder of Metropolis Coffee, and his wife were celebrating Mother’s Day with their infant child in 2006 when he got a call about a broken coffee brewer.
“I said, ‘Gotta go.’ And I left on my wife’s first Mother’s Day. I wasn’t taking stock,” Dreyfuss recalls. It was a low point for them, but not low enough to make him pull back from the long hours building his business. Six years and two more children later, his wife, Karen, pulled him aside and said something had to change.
Dreyfuss saw a doctor and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1, a mental illness that led to an intense attention to work. The disease often is referred to as manic depression or sometimes “the CEO’s disease.”
“I simply ran manic for years. I got a lot done, but it deeply affected my relationships. I wasn’t present with anyone,” he says. Though he didn’t exhibit other common symptoms of the disease—“I didn’t spend money, sleep around or drive like a maniac”—“I just worked, worked, worked.”
The Chicago businessman, 41, grew up in Madison, Wis. He was a skateboarder who took up juggling and photography. Since he was a child, “he’s had a limitless imagination,” says Tony’s father and business partner, Jeff Dreyfuss.
Tony Dreyfuss says he was prone to making life-changing decisions on a whim. His career began while he was driving a cab as a student at the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a philosophy degree. He pulled over one night for coffee and was so struck by that particular cup’s flavor, he decided right then to make the drink a career.
To him, that meant running a coffee shop. “At that point I wasn’t thinking about roasting it,” he says.
He and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., which along with Seattle is the epicenter of specialty coffee. He took a job at a Peet’s Coffee & Tea, working his way up from bean-scooper to management before taking a pay cut to become a taster and “fill a knowledge gap.”
His parents, both linguists, had moved to Seattle, and his father also had become a coffee connoisseur. While attending a trade show in Seattle, father and son purchased a coffee-roasting machine with the idea of going into business.
“We were jacked up on caffeine after drinking a dozen espressos. It was like drunk people getting tattoos,” says the younger Dreyfuss, who already was planning to move to Chicago, where his wife had grown up.
Dreyfuss found retail space in the city’s Edgewater neighborhood for a coffeehouse and roasting facility. That was in 2002.
By 2003, the Dreyfusses were in business and counted Hopleaf Bar and M.Henryrestaurant among early clients.
Today, Metropolis has 400 wholesale customers in Chicago and 200 beyond and expects revenue of more than $7 million this year. The company still operates its only cafe on Granville Avenue, and it employs people with disabilities through nonprofit Aspire.
After his diagnosis in 2012, Dreyfuss told his staff he was taking a three-month leave. The response, he says, was “Oh, thank God!”
Bipolar disorder, he continues, “makes you completely incapable of understanding how your actions affect other people. You have great ideas and you just dump them on other people and move to the next thing.”
With counseling, medication, dietary changes and at least eight hours of sleep a night, Dreyfuss says he’s as healthy as he’s ever been. He carves out open time on his calendar, which allows him more time to think creatively. The company has thrived as a result, he says.
Karen Dreyfuss calls the change at home “miraculous,” adding that the diagnosis explained a lot.
“When you start out in marriage, you support all the meetings and all those fires that have to be put out,” she says. “But year after year there will always be more fires and more meetings and if you don’t draw that line, it will consume you.”
On the patio of Metropolis’ new headquarters in the Avondale neighborhood, Dreyfuss’ phone goes off midconversation. He pulls it out and turns it off.
“Three years ago I would have answered it,” he says. “I really try to be present with who I’m with. That’s what I’ve learned the most.”