August 28, 2014

Allpress Espresso: The perfect cup

For Allpress Espresso, creating a loyal market for their brand takes a carefully selected and dedicated group of coffee connoisseurs. We look at how they turned their start-up business in New Zealand into a leading supplier of specialty coffee in Australia, the UK and Japan.

His enduring search for the perfect cup of coffee has taken Michael Allpress from a start-up with two coffee carts in New Zealand to being a leading supplier of specialty coffee in Australia, the UK and Japan.

In 1984 Allpress was working as a chef in Seattle when he noticed the growing popularity of coffee carts. When he returned to his native New Zealand in 1986, he set up two coffee carts in Auckland serving espresso coffee – a then unfamiliar brew in a country largely used to filter and instant coffee. It didn’t take long for word to spread that there was a better tasting coffee in town.

The essential ingredients

Convinced there was also a better tasting coffee available, Allpress started roasting his own beans, supplying cafés and restaurants, leading to the diversification of the business from selling cups of coffee to speciality roasted beans. In 1996, Allpress Carts opened its own café, which serves as a ‘working billboard’ of the brand in Auckland. It sold espresso coffee and freshly roasted coffee beans for brewing at home. A roastery was set up in the adjoining building and the first barista training courses were held in the café.

The next step in his quest for the perfect cup of coffee saw Allpress approach La Marzocco in Italy, known the world over for its handcrafted espresso machines. Allpress Espresso has been the exclusive distributors of the machines in New Zealand and Australia for the past 15 years.

He also started going direct to the farms to buy the coffee and now has suppliers in seven countries. Allpress Espresso’s biggest source of coffee is Brazil, but the business also has growers in Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Sumatra and Africa.

Dean Liggins, who started as an accountant in the New Zealand office and has been Country Manager for Allpress Espresso Australia for the past four years, recalls that bringing in the first container of green coffee beans initially put a lot of pressure on the cash flow. Payments were staggered but the founders put almost everything back into the business in those early years, re-investing in the growth.

“I remember quite distinctively getting that first box of coffee, it was really exciting for us,” says Liggins. “But we struggled with cash flow going from buying coffee on a weekly or monthly basis from a New Zealand supplier to pre-paying for this box of coffee that cost six figures and wouldn’t arrive for a few months. We had to rob Peter to pay Paul to do it.”

Taking on Australia

Allpress Espresso launched into the Sydney market in 2000 in partnership with restaurateur Tony Papas, a lifelong friend of Allpress. Back then, the Australian coffee market was more competitive than New Zealand had been, as Italian and Greek immigrants had established a coffee culture decades earlier. Therefore, the challenge was to convince cafés to stock the sort of freshly roasted local coffee that Allpress focuses on.

Gourmet or premium coffee grown in special and ideal climates makes up the fastest growing coffee market in the world. Roasting technique is one feature that differentiates Allpress Espresso in the market.

The current roaster uses hot air technology, with Allpress Espresso one of the few Australian roasters to use this method. The beans are suspended in a stream of hot air, allowing temperature to be controlled with greater precision, which Allpress believes consistently produces cleaner, sweeter tasting coffee.

The Allpress promise

The brand promise is etched on every takeaway coffee cup: “At Allpress it’s always about flavour… starting at coffee farms and finishing in your cup. Our obsession with the best tasting coffee involves selecting top grade Arabica beans, using innovative roasting technology, training baristas and the expertise of our people. Enjoy every brew knowing you are in the best possible hands.”

But while it’s the Allpress Espresso brand being recognised as the supplier of the coffee, consistently delivering that perfect cup is in the hands of the barista. Choosing the right cafés to represent the brand is quite a tricky art, admits Liggins.

“We don’t want to be a traditional supplier; we want to be part of their business. And if they want to treat us like a supplier that’s not the relationship we want. We’ve got to filter people without being arrogant or pretentious, but the way that café represents our brand is how we’re going to grow,” he says. “It’s quite a process and we still say no to more people than we say yes to. Sometimes we take a risk on people who have had no experience, but are really keen.”

Part of what’s included in the ‘bag of coffee’ for suppliers are the tools to make great coffee, including technical support and compulsory onsite training to ‘optimise’ the coffee beans – even for experienced baristas.

“Yes, you can lose someone if they get a bad coffee a couple of times and they associate that with the brand, but you have to learn to let that go,” says Liggins. “You can give café customers the right equipment, amazing coffee and barista training, but maybe the barista’s not there, someone else jumps on and makes bad coffee … you have to accept the limits of your control sometimes.”

International expansion

The long-term relationships the business has developed with its café customers and coffee growers have been a big part of its success. The Australian operation has experienced extraordinary growth over the past 14 years, according to Liggins. A refurbished open-plan roaster and café in Melbourne’s Collingwood was unveiled in November 2013, complete with Allpress Studio – a loft available free-of-charge for non-profits to hold cultural exhibitions, events and classes. There are also plans to build a roaster and café in Queensland to supply locally roasted coffee.

In 2010, a decade after launching in Australia, Allpress Espresso expanded into the UK, with Papas relocating to London to set up the Shoreditch Roastery & Café. Expansion was partly funded by the University of Auckland Business School Entrepreneurs’ Challenge, which offers up to $1 million in low-interest loans for small-to-medium New Zealand businesses.

The business is soon moving from Shoreditch having signed a 20-year lease on a property in Dalston where it will build a roastery and café.

Japan was next, coinciding with the country’s growing taste for espresso coffee. A joint venture was formed in 2012 with Teru Harase, who’d been a café customer in New Zealand since 1999 and has since moved back to his native Japan.

Allpress Espresso is also considering expanding to Singapore, Canada and the US. “We have a very strong company culture and value compass that if nurtured, will serve us well over many different markets,” says Allpress.

Managing growth

For Allpress personally, one of the biggest challenges has been letting go as the business has grown. “One of our biggest challenges was to implement an effective performance review programme. This has been successful – we’ve grown from six people to almost 200 since the business started.”

Another was developing talent to travel to Guatemala, Brazil, Colombia and other countries supplying the coffee, in order to secure the best possible quality of green beans from the growers and establish long-term relationships with them without sacrificing the established business.

Yet the origin of the business is never far from Allpress’ mind: “As we grow internationally, we’ve been very conscious of not losing sight of our existing customer base in Australia and New Zealand.”

This article was first published in Business View magazine (May 2014). For more articles and interactivity, download the iPad edition of Business View for free via our new app NAB Think.

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