Photograph by Simon Young
Given his sometimes ten-cup-a-day habit, it was probably inevitable that Steve Guinness would get into the coffee business.
With a degree in mechanical engineering from Canterbury University, and a master’s in management, the obvious next step was always to start his own business.
“I got to a point where I really wanted to apply my skills in commercialisation—a bit of innovation, and solving pains within an industry that I enjoyed. Coffee is the second most-traded commodity after oil, so it’s pretty massive.”
Three years ago, after observing all aspects of the coffee business, Guinness noticed how much ground coffee was being wasted when baristas levelled it off in the portafilter (and with their fingers, no less) before tamping it down.
“In a cafe you'll see a lot of coffee grinds on the bench underneath the grinder,” says Guinness. “I found out wastage was between five and ten percent, and what that cost was to the cafe, so I developed a few different prototypes.”
Even Guinness is surprised at the simplicity of his invention. “I knew I needed a funnel, so I went to Briscoes and bought some muffin tins and a little hacksaw, and then literally hacked it apart. It fitted perfectly.”
After experimenting with his own coffee machine and some fine-tuning in CAD, Guinness had an engineering workshop run up some stainless steel versions, but soon realised his design needed a handle to stop the funnel falling off the grinder. A quick welding job at a sheet-metal shop later, and his new gadget was ready to trial at a few cafes, and then at Wellington roaster Caffe L’affare.
Dubbed the Coffee Catcha, the device stops the ground coffee falling over the edge of the portafilter, allowing the barista to overfill it with a good dose. It is then used to scrape the excess coffee back into the grinder—and those trials showed it only takes a couple of days until a Coffee Catcha becomes part of a barista’s habitual routine.
Coffee Supreme pitched in some cash for the next phase of development, and then Guinness attracted some private investors, allowing him to apply for a global provisional patent.
“Because my product’s so simple, it was relatively straightforward in my eyes to go through the process,” he says. “It was expensive, but relative to my financial forecasts it was worth it to get the patents. The global provisional patent means that you can then go into the countries you want to and get individual patents.
“I’ve got a shortlist of ten countries which import the most coffee in the world, and those are the ones I’ll be targeting in 2011.”
Guinness initially tried to have the Coffee Catcha manufactured in New Zealand, but says a lot of local engineering companies couldn’t deal with small runs, or weren’t equipped to produce all of the components. “So we decided to look offshore,” he says. “We had some contacts in China, and that ended up working well. They were fast to respond, fast to turn things around and great to deal with.”
While the first shipment arrives in New Zealand about the time Idealog hits the newsstands, Guinness says there’s already plenty of interest from roasters, both here and in Australia. “We’ll sell it to roasters at a wholesale price, and then they'll on-sell them, or give them to their cafes. We’re gonna hit New Zealand pretty hard, and then we’ll hit Australia, and we’re looking at going into Europe and the States as well. In cities like New York and San Francisco, there are a lot more cafes popping up.”
That may sound ambitious, but Guinness admits he has a very fluid five-year plan for his newly formed parent company, Espresso Corp (www.espressocorp.com). “As such an early-stage startup, you're working more like month to month, so a 12-month plan is more realistic. There’s a lot more involved, like when I’ll enter a country and how much capital I’ll need and how many staff I’ll need. It’s hard to connect the dots the whole way because there’s so much that’s unknown.”
Guinness says his main plan of action for the coming year is to “sell, sell, sell”, but, on ten lattes a day, you can bet he’s got more tricks up his sleeve. “I’ve got other solutions to other problems that I will pull out as and when I’m ready.”
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