Espresso and the art of Zen repair

Think you know coffee? Get to know Spencer Perez and you'll see the world in a brand new way.

Espresso and the art of Zen repair
Spencer Perez, Coffee Machine Service Co., Red Bank

Get to know Spencer Perez – founder of Coffee Machine Service Co. and our city's espresso machine repairman – and you'll see the world – and coffee – in brand new ways.

“When I put a wrench on a machine, time disappears."

How many espresso machines exist in this city?




Any legitimate restaurant, cafe and coffeehouse must have a machine, which can range from $1000 to sleek and silver models built by a Washington-based company called - of all things - Slayer, whose machines start at $18,500.

Each machine uses heat, pressure and water to distill coffee into this magic shot of dark+delicious+energy.

Espresso is a process. An act of creation.

“It is neither a bean or a blend,” Jimmy Stamp writes in the Smithsonian. “Espresso is a method of preparation.”

The first espresso machines evolved out of Italy in the late 19th century; over time and across continents, they have become both exquisite and dangerous. If machines aren't maintained properly, all that internalized pressure can literally detonate. In 2010, a London machine exploded, injuring 15 and blowing a hole in a nearby cafe wall. Similar explosions - a wedding in New Delhi, a coffeehouse in Italy - have even killed people.

“Good espresso is good chemistry,” Stamp writes. “It’s all about precision and consistency and finding the perfect balance between grind, temperature and pressure."

To maintain that balance - grind, temperature, pressure - machines need routine care and attention.

How many people in Chattanooga service and repair these espresso machines?



Apparently, there’s only one.

Spencer Perez, Coffee Machine Service Co., Red Bank

His name is Spencer Perez. He’s 33, Puerto Rican-American and owns Coffee Machine Service Co. In a quiet mechanic’s shop in Red Bank where geese and herons fly overhead, he can work for hours, head bowed over machines, incense burning, Neil Young on the stereo. Near his tools and gauges, there are also instruments for the spirit: How to Relax by Thich Nhat Hahn, poems by Dan Masterson, a baseball glove and ball, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. It’s the only mechanic’s garage I’ve ever been in that also felt deeply spiritual.

“When I put a wrench on a machine, time disappears,” Perez says. “Worry disappears. I can stay in a state of flow where I’m talking to a machine for eight hours.”

Perez is not just a technician; he’s a creator, innovator, connoisseur. The former co-owner of Velo Coffee Roasters in Chattanooga, he knows and loves all parts of the coffee industry; not only can he repair your machine, he can help you start a cafe, improve your roasting program or expand operations.

“The best thing someone could say to us? We want to start a cafe. We want creative work on our product offering,” Perez said.

Perez is many things, but don’t forget this:

Here in Chattanooga, in the link between us and our beloved espresso, he's pretty damn important.

If the machine goes down, he’s the man you call.

Spencer Perez, Coffee Machine Service Co., Red Bank

All around the world – from El Salvador to East Ridge – millions upon millions of people start their day in the same way:


Coffee contains life. One cup and everything’s there.

Water. Sunlight. Soil. Trees, pollinators, oxygen, compost, earthworms. Human hands laboring in cultivation and invention. A stunningly large global infrastructure of logistics. The entire family of roasters, cafe owners, baristas.

In this one single cup, we find an immeasurable matrix of relationships.

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What happens when we begin to see our lives in similar ways? Not compartmentalized but part of some unified whole, each piece influencing the others?

Where grind, temperature and pressure are aligned in balance?

“There is a web of influence. This thing is alive,” Perez said.

This thing?


“I fell in love with coffee before I ever drank it,” Perez said.

It is mid-1990s in south Georgia. His dad, a working-class cabinet-maker and professor of furniture design at The Savannah College of Art and Design, is brewing two scoops of Cafe Bustelo in the yellow and red can. Spencer’s 5, maybe 6, and he already knows: there’s something special about it.

“Your parents are hectic and everybody’s kinda cranky in the morning,” Perez recalls. “The machine in the corner of the kitchen erupts with this fragrant, burnt, hot, brown stuff. They drink and they are happier.”

He snuck finger dips until he was 11, when he drank his first cup at church. “It was bad,” Perez remembers, but one bad cup was still better than none. In high school, he became the “weirdo who had a travel mug of coffee in class,” then took a job at a nearby ice cream cafe.

Coffee was still a two-trick pony: drip or espresso. Back then, most Americans had never heard of Starbucks.

“Latte art was pretty new,” Perez said.

Owners let him run the espresso machine. A relationship began. Spencer, meet espresso. Espresso, this is Spencer. The wand chose the wizard. Customers noticed.

We want him to make our coffee, please.

Something stirred. He spent a decade working in the industry – roasters, coffee shops, in-house roaster+repair work – before moving to Chattanooga to perform creative direction and quality control at Velo.

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Coffee began to expand for him. Innovation and invention. Spreadsheets and email. As some things integrated, others began to fall apart. His jittery, over-stimulated mind was also insecure and despondent. Little sleep. Increased depression.

Coffee all day, alcohol all night.

Too much grind.

Too much pressure.

Too much temperature.

Not enough balance.

Perez began to fall apart.

For him, repair and maintenance meant leaving his head and descending into his heart and body; he studied cause and effect – eight cups of coffee, zero hours sleep, seven drinks all lead to a state of disrepair.

He began to tinker, adjust, seeking professional help, inviting forgotten parts of himself to the table. Slowly, he returned to life, wiser, healthier. A veteran in the coffee industry, he took stock.

  1. His body-mind needed something new.
  2. Coffee was exploding throughout Chattanooga. All those machines would soon need servicing.
  3. And nobody was doing it.

Coffee Machine Service Co. was born out of an intention to repair not only broken machines, but his own life.

Spencer Perez, Coffee Machine Service Co.

In 2018, he and Sarah - his wife and business partner that Spencer praises over and over – opened Coffee Machine Service Co. in a 150-square-foot spare bedroom in their Chattanooga home. Soon, he moved to an outfitted mechanic’s shop, sharing half the space with a friend who repairs motorcycles in Red Bank.

On the inside of the open lid of a toolbox, next to a homemade card from his daughter, he’s tacked a copy of WS Merwin’s poem “Thanks”:

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

we are saying thank you and waving

dark though it is

W. S. Merwin, "Thanks", Red Bank

Once fragmented, Perez began to integrate different pieces of himself together. Work and labor became part of his spiritual life, which, in turn, became filled with grease, coffee grounds, wrenches. He sent his body an invitation: show up here with me, breathe and stretch and enjoy this.

Work became an act of listening.

“The actual labor of engaging with the machine, building connection with what it needs. Using my body to relate to that equipment. Bring it back to a state of equilibrium,” he said.

Manual labor often carries the potential for this. Mending fence or building barns or cleaning carburetors affects us differently than six hours of email.

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy,” writes Matthew B. Crawford in Shop Class as Soulcraft. “They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.”

Instead of being lost in his over-caffeinated, hungover-thinking-worrying-planning mind, Perez found his body – always in present tense – bringing him back to this moment.

“Here and now immersion,” he said. “If I let ego do the thinking instead of my body, I make mistakes. It is about being where my hands are.”

Then, life and work merge together. At some point, the line between blurs, fades, then poof: gone.

“My life is my art,” Perez said. “Coffee is just the medium for me to express myself."

Spencer Perez, Coffee Machine Service Co., Red Bank

Today, Spencer serves around 70 different clients, offering planned maintenance, repair, consultation and creative design, helping clients envision and create cafes and basic roasting programs, even never-been-done approaches to coffee. He sells, installs and repairs machines, even traveling across the US.

“We really try to develop long term relationships with clients and help them thrive," he said. "Sometimes, it means we won’t sell you a machine at all. Sometimes, we’re going to push you to do what you didn’t know you could do.”

As we sit in his shop, talking, he asks question I have been waiting for:

“Want a cup?”

Perez has a small kitchen in the garage. Moving from a single eye stove to a glass beaker and carafe, he uses a paper filter and, honestly, a few other things I didn’t catch. It’s awfully different than my Mr. Coffeemaker.

“You can use a cast iron skillet and make amazing coffee. You can buy a $30,000 machine and never make good coffee,” he said.

The entire process is codependent on countless others.




A perfect balance, all found right here in a quiet mechanic's shop, where geese and herons fly overhead.

“I just want to make it easier for coffee to taste great,” Perez says.

We sip.

We finish.

As with all things, there is aging and decay. We, like espresso machines, need repair, care and attention.

“It starts with our inner harmony, then to the home, then you can start to look at your work interests,” he said. “Our values and the internal energy we cultivate unconsciously and materially affect the places we inhabit and the people we meet. Don't think about it too much, and don't force it. Just do what feels right and take the lessons when they come. However it goes, you will be ok.”

Spencer Perez, Coffee Machine Service Co. Red Bank

Spencer Perez’s Coffee Machine Service Co. can be found at

All photography by Sarah Unger. Visit

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