When Michael Allpress was courting acquirers for his global coffee brand Allpress Espresso, there were two non-negotiables. The first was that any suitor had to let him keep Air Roasting Technologies, a coffee roaster firm he set up with an engineer friend. The second? He wanted to retain control of his side hustle business, Allpress Olive Oil.
‘It was a dealbreaker, although it never came to that,’ he explains via Zoom from his house on New Zealand’s Waiheke Island. ‘If they had said “no”, it would have been: “Sorry, find another coffee company!” He pauses and then laughs. ‘OK, well maybe not…’
Last spring, after months of paperwork, bankers, data rooms and acquisition mating rituals, Michael and his business partner Tony Papas sold Allpress Espresso to global drinks giant Asahi. ‘Thirty years and half my life – it's been an amazing journey,’ Michael says. ‘But now I'll have to do the same thing, perhaps on a different level, with olive oil.’
Michael started Allpress Espresso more than 30 years ago after witnessing Seattle’s specialty coffee boom. He was inspired, in particular, by a small coffee-cart business called Monorail Espresso. ‘The cart seemed like a low-capital entry into something that was kind of interesting. It had legs,’ he says. He ran with the concept back in his native New Zealand, setting up the country’s first coffee cart, and then got into the roasting game. Today, Allpress Espresso operates a dozen cafes, employs almost 250 people, and sells more than 1,500 tonnes of coffee each year to restaurants and cafes around the world.
Yet, even before the sweeping changes that Covid brought to the hospitality industry, Michael and Tony knew it was time to move on. ‘We kind of understood that, at some point in our lives, there would be a point [we’d do something else],’ Michael explains. ‘It was a natural progression to consider pursuing other things.’
An extra-virgin idea
Enter Waiheke Island, a 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland, known for its beaches, vineyards and, increasingly, its olive groves. When Michael moved there five years ago, the property he bought came with 200 olive trees. It was a business idea waiting to happen.
‘It turns out that there [are] a lot of growing regions within New Zealand, but Waiheke seems to have the perfect conditions if you grow the right varietal,’ he says. ‘There are a lot of people on the island that – perhaps in their mid-50s, 20 years ago – were planting medium-sized groves. Now they're getting to retirement age.’ He points out a neighbor who recently passed away and who left his wife with an olive press and a big grove to manage. ‘There [are] a number of these.’
Michael grabs a fat book with Italian writing on the cover and holds it up to the screen. A local olive press made it into this global ranking of the world’s top 500, he says. ‘There's thousands and thousands of small groves around the world, from Japan to Peru, so to get in this book… It's quite an accolade.’
But it’s not as simple as throwing money at groves. For one, the land value in Waiheke is incredibly expensive. ‘The horticultural revenue derived from the olives is never going to stack up in terms of the capital investment,’ Michael explains. So, to make the business work economically, he and his team are renovating homes on the properties to put together a suite of holiday accommodations.
So, is all this a post-acquisition hobby or the seeds of Allpress 2.0?
‘We have the luxury of not carrying a lot of debt, but it's still got to be commercially viable. We'll be disciplined about budgets,’ Michael says about the business, which will export and sell olive oil globally. He recently hired Dean Liggins, a former colleague at Allpress Espresso for 17 years, to take the reins of the new operation.
‘Dean and I realized that we've done this all before [with Allpress Espresso],’ he says. ‘We don't have to make it up any more. We’re just applying it to a different product. So things are about to change quite quickly.
‘I've got 600 liters in my garage – I'm not selling it fast enough!’