Photos by Brenna HuffApproaching the Zen Cafe Coffee Roasters booth at Coffee Fest Indy this year, one may have expected to hear an electronic cacophony of beeps, zooms, whirs, and pew sounds associated with arcade games rather than the steamy hiss and metallic clangs of an espresso machine. Front and center on display was a brand-new Synesso MVP customized to look like an arcade cabinet that would look perfectly at home in an episode of “Stranger Things.” Instead of buttons to smash and defeat an opponent, the face of the machine featured all the high-tech calibration bells and whistles that a barista could ask for. Kelly Stombaugh, the company’s head coffee roaster and an artist in her own right, had collaborated with Synesso to design the retro-inspired piece of equipment for the company’s upcoming second location. Stombaugh shared her experience with Fresh Cup, from initial inspiration to the final touches in developing this unique homage to ‘80s video game culture.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Can you tell me about the design of the espresso machine I saw in Indy?
I’m a ‘90s kid, but I’ve got two older sisters who are a decade older than me, so I got all their ‘80s hand-me-downs. That was pretty much a huge inspiration for the design because the owner of our café, who picked out what espresso machine he wanted, he was like, “Okay, I want you to do a design. You can do whatever you want.” Which, I love to hear that, but it’s also kind of scary.
Since I had all of this ‘80s stuff growing up—which let me tell you, made me super relatable to my peers—when everybody had a Super Nintendo I had an old Atari, and we also have one in the café….I was kind of looking at them like okay, so we have these arcade machines that we’re starting to collect all of a sudden, like within the last couple months. We’ve got a Nintendo set up for people to play. We play VHS tapes. I was looking at my own experience with those things since they’re already becoming part of our café.
I know [Atari] because I played one of those for forever. The covers of those games, like those old “Activision” games, they always had some kind of rainbow stripe element in their design. I always thought that was super cool. And a lot of them were using bands of colors, but those were like sunset colors. As a kid I thought that’s the most beautiful color combination.
The owner, who was actually an ‘80s kid, is also kind of revamping that style for himself. It’s not intentional. He just kind of has that going on as a person….He just got [his mullet] freshened up [with] some lightning bolts razored on the sides, and he drives around in this old Toyota truck that he wants to get custom painted.
It’s also speaking to what’s happening in pop culture right now, kind of this idea of the ‘80s with “Stranger Things,” what we interpret the ‘80s as now.
Yeah, exactly. It’s not the same, obviously, but there are design elements and things being pulled back and they’re becoming interesting again. Also, kind of given a modern facelift.
Once you had the inspiration, how did you create that design for that machine?
The first thing that I did was just absolutely scour Synesso’s website. I wanted to see what all of their color options are and things like that. I found that they also have wood packages available with four different types of woods to choose from. I was like, “Oh, this is great!” It absolutely reminds me of wood-paneled televisions and stuff like old station wagons.
I knew from the get-go that we wanted to use some kind of wood, but the most helpful resource for me was their Instagram page. I just scrolled through @SynessoFactory to see what kinds of things they have done that aren’t listed on their website. I just wanted to know everything that we can do, and then kind of plug my design into that.
I found an image of the side, like the shape of the side of the machine, because I knew that was where the magic was going to happen. Then I used that photo from their website to create a template of that shape. I knew I wanted to do these stripes and some kind of dark sky, or space color, which was that deep blue. I just plugged all of that into this template that I made, along with our order form specifying we want everything in Zebrawood that we possibly can have.
What we put in an order for was a wood handle for the steam wand, the portafilter handles, the paddles on the group heads for pulling shots. I can even get a bar across the back for holding cups in Zebrawood. We also wanted a wood panel with our name and logo etched into it because I had seen that they had done that kind of work before.
That was my perfect idea of what this was going to turn out to be, but that’s where the compromising had to happen.
I’ll say Synesso did a fantastic job of working with us to make that machine what it is now. From the get-go, they were super excited to work on it—which I would be too, custom projects are probably more fun.
They did let us know that powder coating all of those different colors would be really difficult and expensive on our part, but that they could do different colors with vinyl cutouts for the stripes and then wrap them on the side panels. Which, I was kind of skeptical of, but okay, well they’ve done this before. You would swear that they’re actually powder coated just by looking at it. So we were really happy with that.
Then the other difficulty was the wood panel with our logo, which they’ve been discontinued because they warped or something, the wood panels were not working out well. They stopped doing it, but what they did do, is they made a vinyl wrap so that it looks like our logo is in Zebrawood and it’s pristine, it’s perfect.
Some compromising did have to happen and it’s kind of to be expected with any custom project. We were really happy. It’s not exactly, you know, what we envisioned, but it still turned out to be a beautiful piece. In some ways, I think it works better the way they did it, which makes sense because they know their business and their products.
To keep those realities of functionality and durability and budget in mind?
Yeah, exactly. Also, it’s the longevity of it. Reality does have to step in here and there when you’re on some super creative trip. You’re talking about an espresso machine with steam wands. A wood panel eventually is going to warp when you apply all that heat and humidity.
How long was the fabrication process once you got that design to Synesso?
Once I sent that design off to Synesso, I think it was about a month. There was a little bit of back and forth and they were in touch with us throughout. Like, “Hey, you know, the vinyl that we put on isn’t sticking that well. We’ve got bubbles, so we’re gonna redo the vinyl altogether.” So it’s things like that kind of added time. They were straightforward with us, but also they didn’t want to send out a machine that wasn’t up to their standards either. We got that machine in like two weeks before Coffee Fest.
Once you got it in, what were the customer reactions to the machine?
Honestly, the only place that we’ve used it and shown it at all is on social media and at Coffee Fest. And that was it. Because we currently have a machine in our café, this one is going to be in a second location that we’re working on opening up….But social media alone, people knew about it. We kind of put out little teasers of sorts, just a little bit of, this design or part of a photo that Synesso sent us while we were testing it out and calibrating and everything. We had people coming in and asking, “So what’s the plan? Where is it? We want to see it!”
It was just a huge reaction. I don’t think we would have gotten if we had just picked out a color and had it sitting in storage or something.
Zen Coffee Roasters
1302 High Street
South Bend, IN
Follow @zencafesouthbend on Instagram to stay up-to-date on the café and its upcoming expansion.