Saturday, August 18, 2018

Seattleite Spotlight: Espresso Pioneer Kent Bakke

Meet the Seattle man behind the world’s most prestigious espresso machines.

The handmade espresso machines produced by La Marzocco have received worldwide praise since the Florentine company was founded in 1927. More than 30 years ago, a Seattle entrepreneur named Kent Bakke traveled to Italy to glean a little firsthand wisdom about espresso machine production and distribution. Today he is the CEO of La Marzocco, a position that allows him to share his company’s sophisticated products with espresso connoisseurs around the world.

What initially brought you to Seattle?

I came to Seattle in 1970 to go to Seattle Pacific College. My older brother and sister had also attended Seattle Pacific University. I came from a small town in central California, so the big city of Seattle was appealing.

What are some of the fondest memories from your days as owner of Pioneer Square eatery Hibble and Hyde’s?

[Laughs, then furrows brow trying to think] The people I met. Because of Hibble and Hyde’s I got interested in espresso machines and coffee. As a result, I met my first lifelong coffee friends there.

When did you begin working with espresso machines?

The first espresso machine I ever saw was at Hibble and Hyde’s. It worked. Sort of. It was a Victoria Arduino – a vertical boiler, two-group espresso machine. It had a grinder with it that did work.  We did serve coffee on it: espresso for 25 cents, cappuccino for 35 cents. On a busy day I’m sure we served at least five beverages.

The steam valves were leaking so that was probably my first foray into figuring out how it worked. I probably called my friend John Blackwell, who is still one of my business partners, to have him help me fix the machine.

Is it true that you taught yourself to repair and maintain espresso machines? 

I was self-taught because there was no one else who knew more than I did in the Seattle area – at least that I was aware of. There were just a handful of espresso machines in Seattle, including the one at my restaurant. I was very curious about how the machines worked. Espresso machines were certainly simpler back then, but there were also fewer ways to learn about them. There was no Internet, no instruction manuals, no repair manuals, nothing to tell me how the thing worked. But the systems were easy enough to generally figure out.

Today all of those resources are online and there are lots of highly skilled technicians, and trainings (La Marzocco offers technical training to customers). The machines are more complex, but a lot of the basic designs – the theory – are still intact and consistent among major manufacturers.

When did you decide to make the leap into espresso machine distribution?

I had worked in restaurants for a while, and for as much as I liked it, I wasn’t very good at it. After working with the espresso machine in my restaurant a bit, I had started servicing a few machines around town.

My friend Asa came along around the end of 1977 to help with the restaurant. He had come from California where there were restaurants with espresso machines. And he said, if you can work on them, we should import them and sell them. Sounded like a simple idea, so we made our first trip to Italy in the fall of 1978. My father came from a machine manufacturing background, and was an entrepreneur. I had an entrepreneurial itch, so I jumped in. The opportunity for travel to Italy didn’t hurt either.

What did you learn about espresso and espresso-making equipment during your first trip to Italy?

Seeing as how I didn’t know much, I learned a lot, and had the opportunity to experience what espresso was like in Italy. It was an eye-opener. Being able to visit two manufacturers, I got to learn how the machines were made and assembled and I was able to ask questions about how things worked.

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As a worldwide espresso machine distributor, where has your job taken you?

I don’t know how many countries I’ve been to. Certainly throughout Europe and Asia and Southeast Asia, Australasia. In the last year I’ve been to Scandinavia, Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand,  and all over the U.S.

In the last couple of years we’ve opened offices in London, Seoul, Melbourne, and Sydney. And of course our U.S. operation is based in Seattle, and all of the machine assembly happens outside of Florence in a little town called Scarperia.

I’ve never been south of San Diego. Is that crazy or what? One of my best friends lived in Mexico for 15 years and I still haven’t been.

There are presently eight espresso machine models available through La Marzocco. What can you tell us about the current inventory?

Our current lineup offers a range of solutions and features, but all of which resolve back to La Marzocco quality and craftsmanship. We have machines – like the Linea Classic – that can be appropriate for businesses that are just getting started, to models that deliver a higher degree of precision – like the GB/5 or the FB/80 – on up to our most technologically advanced machine, the Strada EP, which gives the barista complete control over the pressure that is applied to the coffee bed over the course of brewing.

And then we have the GS/3, which features all of the technology of the GB/5 – a commercial machines – but in a smaller footprint that can be used in the home or in cafes or bakeries or restaurants that want to serve high-quality espresso beverages but don’t need more capacity.

In addition to espresso machines, what are some of the other La Marzocco products available today?

La Marzocco has two grinders: the La Marzocco Vulcano grinder, and the La Marzocco Swift grinder. The Vulcano grinder takes design cues from a La Marzocco grinder that was in production in the 1960s, and which was awarded for its design. The Swift grinder automatically doses and tamps espresso in order to help baristas achieve consistency from shot to shot. La Marzocco USA is also the exclusive distributor of Ireland-based Marco hot water delivery systems. And we’re also the largest U.S. distributor of Mazzer grinders.

In your opinion, how has the coffee industry evolved over the last 40 years?

I would say that what was old has become new and what is new has become old. I see a continuous passion for coffee and a thirst for coffee knowledge. Certainly in the last 30 years, espresso has established itself as part of coffee culture and has been a central part of the evolution of coffee.

I’ve seen a lot of growth in the people part of coffee. Coffee has really evolved to be about relationships, and making connections from source to the consumer, the farmer to the coffee drinker.

Are there any forthcoming releases from La Marzocco that readers should know about?

Many of your Seattle readers may be familiar with our company because of the Linea, the stainless steel espresso machine that we’ve been producing for almost 25 years. I almost think of the Linea as Seattle’s espresso machine because it was at the center of the growth of the specialty coffee movement in Seattle over the course of those 25 years.

For the first time, we’ve just introduced a full update to the styling and technical workings of the Linea – the new model is called the Linea PB. It goes into production this summer, and right now, the only one that exists in the US is in our showroom in Ballard. People are welcome to come by and see it, have coffee with us.

Beyond that, as a company, part of our innovation is not just around espresso machine technology but around people and community and relationships, so we look for ways to foster that here in Seattle, in Italy, and we do what we can to extend that to our customers who may not be geographically close to us.

In Seattle we host educational events and offer up our lab to our roaster customers to do cuppings and other learning events. All of these are open to the public. Last week, Olympia Coffee Roasters visited for a showcase to talk about how coffee is graded; this week we have Deeper Roots with us from Cincinnati doing a showcase of their coffees. Last fall Slate Coffee Roasters, a new roaster in Seattle, introduced their coffee for the first time in a showcase at our facility.

Kent says he currently divides his time between travels to Italy and his home in Seattle. To learn more about La Marzocco or purchase items from the online store, please visit the company’s official website.

About Brad Nehring

Brad Nehring is a lifelong resident of the Seattle area. He is currently a freelance writer, but has previously worked for the US Forest Service, Amazon.com, and the Peace Corps, among others. His hobbies include hiking, playing basketball, and designing tattoos.
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