It’s easy to see how someone could get hooked on the business of coffee… once you understand the journey from green bean to cup, it leaves you hankering to learn more.
At least, that’s how it happened for Chris White, founder of the gold-standard coffee wholesaler Altura Coffee Company Limited. His father wouldn’t let him leave school until he had a job so he applied for one in the newspaper that read ‘No experience required, drivers’ licence essential.’ The year was 1980 and the job was coffee roaster at a then-fledgling Robert Harris, where Chris learned the craft from the ground up. In the process, he developed an enduring passion for coffee.
“You become fascinated with the product once you understand the process of bean to cup,” says Chris. “I’ve been in the business since the ‘80s and I’m still learning.”
By the time Robert Harris was sold to Cerebos Greggs a decade later, it had blossomed into a chain of cafes and products. Chris’s knowledge base had grown with the company – he was production manager by then – so rather than manage a range of ‘dry goods’ (herbs, spices, corn chips and coffee) for the new corporate owner, he and a business partner struck out on their own.
“I took redundancy and started again from scratch, this time in partnership with a guy who was a design engineer. He built our first coffee roaster. In 1991, we opened up a little roasting factory in Glenfield Auckland, hired a sales rep and went from there.”
Skip forward 10 years and Altura had grown into an established coffee roasting and wholesaling business, but unlike many of its competitors, had no shops or cafes for potential buyers to sample their coffee in. They moved to their current address in Albany and built a 107-seat cafe with a roastery taking pride of place in the centre – a coffee destination that also sold great food, but was ultimately all about the coffee.
Altura’s journey continued from there and now supplies coffee and related equipment to cafes around the country. Part of their success rests on the journey they took early on, back to the source – the coffee bean farmers.
“There weren’t many green bean brokers in New Zealand then, and as we grew we decided we wanted to source our own green coffee beans, build relationships with farmers and source the actual beans we wanted,” says Chris. “The brokers are all drawing off the same green bean pile, so they’re all starting with the same raw ingredient. We wanted something a bit different. So we struck up relationships direct with farmers.”
Every batch of Altura’s green beans can be traced back to single farms in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Papua New Guinea. The company says its long-term relationships with its coffee bean farmers ensures on-going support for their communities and a consistent supply of the best green coffee beans at fair prices.
“The growers used to basically strip the crop and sell it as a commodity,” says Chris. “Now the farmers realise you can actually get different tasting coffee from different parts of your farm, and from different farming methods, which is why we’re now getting these micro-lots [of beans] coming through. The way they grade and process the coffee has also become a lot more elaborate.”
“We went through that Fair Trade coffee phase” Chris continues. “But realistically the cost of getting Fair Trade certification was too high for many farmers, so this is why we decided to go direct to farmers. We can show pictures and tell the story of the farming family, the chain from tree to cup. We can prove sustainability and traceability.”
Most of the farms Altura deals with have scale to provide reliable supply. With the growth in boutique varieties, they are now also buying smaller quantities of interesting varieties from small farms and offering short-run, special blends to customers. “It’s a bit like wine in that regard. In the cafe, we run blend of the month to give patrons the chance to try these micro-lot coffees from around the world.”
The international aspect of the coffee trade, and the relationships with farmers around the world, have kept the passion for coffee alive for Chris, but it also keeps him learning. This knowledge then feeds back into his business.
“If you stop enjoying what you do and there’s nothing else to learn, it’s time to get out, but I’m always learning more. I am also involved with World Coffee Events, which includes barista and roaster championships as well as judge certification Seeing the best baristas competing is still mind blowing. Being able to bring all that experience back home is great,” explains Chris enthusiastically.
One challenge Altura faces is the tightening of coffee supply, driven by more demand from emerging economies, particularly in Asia, and by dwindling supply as coffee bean farmers face the same challenges of succession that farmers around the world face. The sons and daughters of farmers are often drawn to life and work in the big cities.
On the domestic front, supplying cafes presents another challenge. The hospitality business has one of the highest failure rates of any sector. Hayes Knight director, Tristan Dean, has worked with Altura for about 14 years on a range of business issues, risk being a major one.
“They are in a competitive market,” says Tristan, “dealing with a lot of small cafe operators, which comes with some specific risks – particularly around getting paid. They provide expensive equipment (coffee machines) into cafes as part of the supply deal and we had to help with making sure every available protection was taken to ensure the machine would come back to them if the cafe went broke.”
“Strict terms of trade have helped moderate the risk, says Chris. “We’re seeing a lot of growth in cafes”, he explains. “Every new building seems to have one. It’s a popular start-up sector, with people giving it a try. They invest a lot of money in gear.” He continues, “To manage our risk, we say to the cafes, ‘you’re getting paid for the coffee as soon as the customer drinks it’. So we ensure that our customers adhere to the signed terms of trade, which lands up being beneficial to both parties. We’ve had a few cases of cafes just closing doors and we don’t want to be left with a huge bad debt.”
Chris says Hayes Knight has always communicated well with what‘s going on in the marketplace, “what we should be cautious of, what we should look out for, and potentially where we could go. It’s invaluable when you have a company you work with that you totally trust. Those are few and far between and getting worse.”
Having seen the Robert Harris model with its many cafes, and understanding that supplying the big retail chains would fundamentally alter his business model, Chris is happy to stick to the one cafe and keep doing what he fell in love with in the first place, sourcing great beans and roasting them for the local cafe trade. Altura keeps evolving though and Chris keeps learning.
“We like keeping up with local and overseas trends. Growth in the capsule market is a big focus. We are now packaging our customers’ favourite blends into capsules. We are saying, “if you get a really good coffee why restrict it to bags? Let’s package capsules too.”
Chris further comments, “Domestic equipment is also coming to the fore. People are making more coffee at home. There’s always something different coming through.” And this evolutionary aspect is exactly what will continue to fuel Chris and Altura – that and a piccolo, Chris’s personal favourite!