When Jeff Kennedy opened Caffe L’affare, a coffee-roasting company and cafe in Wellington, in 1990, everyone in New Zealand was drinking instant coffee. If they were really posh, says Kennedy, they were drinking “dark-roasted imported stuff from Italy.” And nobody roasted their own coffee in Wellington. Since Caffe L’affare opened, though, New Zealand’s coffee culture has boomed. The country’s per capita consumption (0.94 cup per day) now ranks in the world’s top 20, and they have more roasters per capita than anywhere else on the planet.
Riding this coffee wave, Kennedy, along with his partner Bridget Dunn, sold Caffe L’affare (for a reported $25 million) in 2006 to fund two new business ventures: Acme & Co, a burgeoning speciality coffee cup company, and Prefab, a cafe in Wellington, seating 180, that also serves as Acme & Co’s “test lab” for their cups. As it turns out, the timing of Acme & Co’s 2011 opening could not have been better.
In 2012, ACF, a premiere specialty coffee-cup maker in Italy, went under. Their cups were found all over the globe, including in Kennedy’s Caffe L’affare. “We always used ACF at our cafe,” says Dunn, “and we would sell them to all the cafes that were popping up all over New Zealand and even to the growing number of competitive-roasting companies that were opening everywhere.” Their absence left a hole in the market. “Acme & Co was already doing well in New Zealand before ACF folded,” says Dunn. “To be fair though, our timing was brilliant. We were there when everyone needed us.”
“Acme & Co was already doing well in New Zealand before ACF folded,” says Dunn, “To be fair though, our timing was brilliant. We were there when everyone needed us.”
At the time, Acme’s cups varied slightly from what ACF was doing — in terms of colors and little innovations. Instead of just white, brown or black, Acme offered a broader color palette that included pastels in shades of blue, green and red. Most of their cups were hardier, made out of porcelain, and more adept to handle the rigors of a fast-moving cafe environment. Today all of Acme’s cups, which are designed in New Zealand and manufactured in China, are tried and tested in Prefab. “No one wants fragile cups in this environment,” says Dunn. “No cafe owner wants the expense of replacing cups constantly.” This keeps the brand in touch with its roots: the genuine cafe and coffee experience.
Cafes and coffee shops in New Zealand have restaurant service; the idea of waiting in line for a cup, like in Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, is bizarre to locals. At Prefab, there are communal tables and bars where guests can watch the coffee roast or chefs cook. In this sense, Dunn says, it’s a communal place. It brings people together. (Above: Prefab, Acme’s 180-seat cafe. Photo: Michael Farr)
Every Acme cup is designed, according to Kennedy, to “make the cafe experience easier and more elegant for cafe patrons, baristas and cafe owners.” In addition to adjustments in color and weight, Acme also added minor innovations, such as larger finger holes in some, or slight changes in shape, like the Union mug, which is thinner than the traditional diner mug and better suited for lighter-roasted coffees “that still taste great as they cool.”
Along with selling specialty cups internationally, Acme, in the same vain as Caffe L’affare, is also steeped in coffee. They roast all their own beans on site in Wellington — in a copper-lined drum, where the heat is evenly distributed and the beans are likewise roasted evenly — which they sell in Prefab, to local markets and online to customers all around New Zealand. “We only ever have three origins at a time,” says Kennedy. “Usually an Ethiopian, a Brazil and another Central American coffee. Generally always washed arabicas. We like clean coffees.”
All Acme’s coffee business comes in Kiwi dollars (they only sell it at Prefab and a local fresh market). Their cup business, however, has much more international ambitions. Their first international distributors were from New Zealanders who had set up coffee roasting businesses abroad. “Most of the distributors for our cups in other parts of the world have visited these cities, seen the cups and liked them,” says Kennedy. “It’s been a pretty organic process.”
Every Acme cup is designed to “make the cafe experience easier and more elegant for cafe patrons, baristas and cafe owners.”
In Acme’s first year, 2011, they sold roughly 100,000 units — all domestically. Almost five years later, they’re selling close to 750,000 units worldwide, a quarter of which still comes from their domestic market. Although small (4 million population), New Zealand has a mature espresso market. No work gets done until they’ve had their morning Flat White.
Acme is still relatively small outside New Zealand, selling about half the number of cups in the States and in UK as it does in New Zealand. As for Europe, that’s a different story. “We have some of the very best third-wave cafes using our cups,” says Kennedy, “particularly in Berlin.” To capitalize on this, Acme — which has distributers in Australia, London, Canada, the US and Mexico — will be launching its own Acme Europe hub in 2016.
“The company I founded in 1990 was one of those second-wave rebels,” says Kennedy, “taking the Italian espresso tradition and making it our own.” Today New Zealand is in the middle of the third-wave movement, celebrating the provenance of the coffee bean. Even so, Kennedy says the specialty coffee community is still largely conversing with themselves — it’s still niche. On New Zealand’s horizon, however, is what Kennedy refers to as the fourth wave of specialty coffee. It’s here, Kennedy says, where Acme “hopes to have greater success at getting specialty coffee to a much broader audience.”