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Originally published February 19, 2012 at 8:01 PM | Page modified February 20, 2012 at 10:47 AM

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Local coffee world reveres this pioneer

The way David Schomer, of Espresso Vivace, effuses about Kent Bakke, you would think he buys all his espresso machines from Bakke's La Marzocco factory in Italy.

Seattle Times business reporter

Kent Bakke

Age: 59

Childhood: Born in Rice Lake, Wis.; grew up in California.

Move to Seattle: Attended Seattle Pacific College, received business-administration degree.

Start in coffee: Fixed espresso machines while owning Pioneer Square restaurant Hibble & Hyde's.

Big shift: In 1994, he and a small group of investors bought 90 percent of Florence, Italy-based La Marzocco, and opened a factory in Ballard to meet Starbucks' growing demand.

Distribution switch: In 2004, Bakke and business partners sold the espresso-machine distributor Espresso Specialists to a Swiss company called Franke, which is known for supplying steel sinks and other equipment to McDonald's. In 2009, he bought back the distribution rights for La Marzocco.

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The way David Schomer, of Espresso Vivace, effuses about Kent Bakke, you would think he buys all his espresso machines from Bakke's La Marzocco factory in Italy.

"He's a warmhearted and kind soul, a genuine and helpful person," Schomer said. "He's really been my angel in terms of equipment, and still is. He just brought me 48 sets of grinder burrs [which crush coffee beans before brewing] that are very hard to get."

Despite the good feelings, Schomer has not purchased a La Marzocco espresso machine in years.

His espresso shops are equipped instead with Synesso machines made in Seattle by Mark Barnett, whom Bakke fired about eight years ago.

Even Barnett has kind words for La Marzocco's main shareholder.

"His heart is good, and his intentions are always good," said Barnett, whose younger, smaller Synesso has attracted high-end shops like Schomer's that in the past would have bought from Bakke.

People in the coffee world revere Bakke, seeing him as a U.S. coffee pioneer with pure motives. Espresso heads often distinguish between people who love coffee and those who love money. They think he's more of the former.

There was relatively little money in espresso when Bakke delved into the scene in the late 1970s. Initially, he liked playing with gadgets and became fascinated with the espresso machine at a Pioneer Square restaurant he owned. Then Bakke's love of good espresso kicked in, and he set out to introduce the Northwest to it by importing and distributing La Marzocco and other espresso machines from Italy.

The espresso-equipment impresario remembers when Seattle restaurateurs sniffed at the idea of espresso.

"They'd say, 'Ess-what? Oh, that nasty Italian stuff,' " he recalled. "It took about a year to sell the first machine."

He started calling the imports "cappuccino machines," and one of his business partners built the Northwest's first espresso cart to offer samples at local festivals.

By the early 1980s, Bakke felt fortunate to sell three or four espresso machines a month in the Northwest.

Then came Starbucks.

The Seattle company had been around since 1971, selling mostly coffee beans, but in 1984 it began selling espresso drinks with a Florence-made La Marzocco machine it bought from Bakke.

"We installed it at Fourth and Spring," recalled Starbucks co-founder Jerry Baldwin, who also owned Peet's Coffee in the Bay Area. "We also bought one for the Peet's store in San Francisco and started retrofitting both companies with them."

They chose La Marzocco largely because it saturated the coffee grounds with more water before brewing, which led to better flavor.

"They were certainly among the best," Baldwin said.

Stable company

Over the years, La Marzocco also has been among the most stable of Italy's espresso-machine companies, something Baldwin attributes to Bakke's ownership.

"I really like working with Kent and his continued enthusiasm both for the business and for life," said Baldwin, who remains a director at Peet's, which tried other machines, but returned a number of years ago to La Marzocco.

Bakke never intended to buy La Marzocco, but in 1994 when he asked the Italian company to ramp up production to match Starbucks' blazing growth, the manufacturer demurred. Bakke could do it himself, La Marzocco suggested, if he bought the company.

So Bakke and a small group of investors bought 90 percent of La Marzocco, and he opened a second factory in Ballard.

La Marzocco ramped up to produce some 140 machines a month, about half of them for Starbucks.

Starbucks switch

In 2004, its meteoric rise alongside Starbucks stopped.

The chain switched to push-button machines, in part to simplify training for the thousands of new baristas it was hiring each year — a decision Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz later lamented, saying it cost Starbucks the romance and theater that came with La Marzocco machines.

The Starbucks switch cost La Marzocco its 20-employee factory in Ballard and millions of dollars in sales.

"It was hard to survive that financially for a while, but it opened up a real opportunity for the independent [coffeehouses] to differentiate themselves from Starbucks," said Bakke, who reflexively sees the bright side.

The loss of the Starbucks business was compounded by issues with La Marzocco's distributing company, which Bakke sold that same year to Franke, a Swiss operation known for providing kitchen equipment to McDonald's.

The move confused customers, Bakke said. "It raised questions in people's minds about what they were getting and who was taking care of them," he said.

Although La Marzocco's sales did not drop, the Italian machines were not Franke's focus, he said. "They hadn't been able to develop a warm and fuzzy relationship with the customer base," Bakke said. "We felt there was this stronger market emerging."

Franke also created a fuss in 2007 when it priced La Marzocco's long-awaited home espresso machine, the GS/3, at $7,500, after leading customers for years to believe it would be closer to $4,500.

More competition

In 2009, Bakke and business partners bought back the distribution rights for La Marzocco. They lowered the GS/3's suggested retail price to $6,500 and faced competition from some former employees.

In one recent case, Synesso's Barnett beat La Marzocco and its Strada machine to the market with temperature-control features. That helped Barnett win the business from Espresso Vivace's Schomer.

Two other former La Marzocco employees — Eric Perkunder and Dan Urwiler — helped start a company called Slayer, known for machines that allow baristas to control water pressure second-by-second.

Bakke acknowledges that La Marzocco has played a bit of catch-up.

"We had to close down that [Ballard] factory and were in the middle of selling [the distribution company], so our focus was scattered and our resources limited — so innovation was put on hold."

New factory

But La Marzocco is fully back now, selling nearly 4,000 machines a year in 70 countries and making them in a new factory in Tuscany. It's booking higher sales now than when it made machines for Starbucks. Although espresso connoisseurs compare La Marzocco to Synesso and Slayer, Bakke does not consider them the biggest competition.

"The real competition is against the vast market of machines out there with mediocre espresso," he explained. "We're trying to get people to make the choice to improve their product. Our biggest competition is complacency."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AllisonSeattle.

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