Tony Papas’ career spans fine dining, a boutique bakery, specialty coffee and a new venture into olive farming in Italy. Papas, who received a Lifetime Award at Allegra's European Coffee Awards 2022, speaks to World Coffee Portal about his introduction to hospitality, scaling specialty roaster Allpress Espresso and life after coffee
Photo credit: Tony Papas
Tell us about your introduction to hospitality
When I was a teenager, I decided to hitchhike around New Zealand, eventually finding myself looking for a job in Auckland. I started working in a kitchen and realised I wanted a bit more of this exciting hospitality industry.
I got a job in a little 30-seater restaurant called Salters in Auckland and began studying. I had this burning desire to go and experience first-hand working in a European kitchen. I completed my City & Guilds in Auckland before leaving for Europe and by the time I was 21 I was working in the kitchen of a Michelin star restaurant in Amsterdam, cooking French food with all the marvellous produce that I'd previously only heard about.
That was the start of my career in hospitality and led on to a career working in restaurants, eventually my own restaurants, and associated businesses, including a bread company.
In 1992, American Asian chef Ken Hom introduced me to Chez Panisse in Berkeley where I discovered this incredible bread and came back with a recipe in my pocket.
We’d always made bread at the Bayswater Brasserie, which I opened in Sydney with friends a decade before. So, I started developing it and built a proving room upstairs in the pastry kitchen and the concept went on from there.
This led to purchasing a rundown bakery and all its equipment in the Waterloo area of Sydney. From there we built a new bakery in the back of what was the second iteration of Allpress Espresso.
How did you find yourself working with Michael Allpress and in the coffee industry?
I started operating the bakery in 1993 and in the interim opened another restaurant in Sydney called The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay in 1996.
Michael Allpress had contacted me a few years before that. In the late 1980s he had set up a coffee cart in Auckland, New Zealand, after a trip to the US and he came to me and said: “I think there's an old rundown coffee roaster in the back a of a café (Hernandez) near your restaurant The Bayswater Brasserie. Can you find out?”
So, we hauled out this coffee roaster and , I helped Michael ship it back to New Zealand and that was the start of Allpress Coffee Roasters A few years later he asked if I would join forces with him and set up this fresh coffee roasting business in Australia.
That was the start of the coffee business and was also my introduction to La Marzocco.
We properly started roasting coffee in Sydney in August 1999 and at the same time I purchased nine La Marzocco espresso machines. The rest is history, really.
What prompted expansion to London?
I always thought that if we were successful in Australia we would need to think a little bigger and expand further afield, perhaps to the UK. After some brainstorming and a series trips to explore the UK market we decided to come to London in 2010.
We opened up in Redchurch Street with a roaster that we had packed up and shipped from New Zealand. Redchurch Street was very different in 2009 from what it is today, interesting and eclectic. There was this sad-looking building on the corner with its shutters down, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that it could be such a good building.
“It's such a relief to know that you've got a business to a point where somebody else who you trust has the drive, ability and financial backing to take it to the next level”
It just felt like the right location, and we have always had a good gut instinct for choosing locations. Your site is your working billboard – it's a visual thing. People recognise and remember your brand as walk or drive past the shop regularly, you start to build a little community.
When we were confident enough to say that people were really enjoying what we were doing we began to focus on a long-term home for Allpress in London, with the capacity to send coffee to Europe and eventually open further roasteries in Europe.
In 2015, just five years after we arrived in London, we opened Dalston Lane.
How did the decision to sell Allpress Espresso come about?
A succession plan was a planned thing. It's a big responsibility thinking about the next 10 years of your business and you always need to have a long view about these things, in my view.
In 2018, Michael (Allpress) wrote me a note and said he thought it was time to do something else and I agreed.
Fast forward two years and we had managed the turbulence at the start of 2020 with Covid and our business eventually recovered. There was a rocky period where we were figuring out whether we were safe or not and what was coming next.
We knew we had a wonderful business and brand, with a great team in place, and we felt like we'd done a really good job, that somebody else could take it to where it needed to go next.
It's such a relief to know that you've got a business to a point where somebody else who you trust has the drive, ability and financial backing to take it to the next level. And that opens up great opportunities for the people that you've been lucky enough to work with as well as your customers.
Allpress Espresso was acquired by Asahi Beverages, the Australian and New Zealand arm of Japanese alcoholic and soft beverages giant Asahi Group Holding, in April 2021.
“There are some parallels between producing extra virgin olive oil and the specialty coffee business”
What does life after Allpress Espresso look like for you?
The timing felt right to move on from Allpress and I had other interests that were evolving over a period of time. I had spent about 10 years going to Puglia in Southern Italy, looking for a place in a rural setting where we could spend time away from London.
I had this lingering thing about doing something on the land and it was pretty obvious when we got to Puglia, it was going to be something to do with olives and gardening.
There are some parallels between producing extra virgin olive oil and the specialty coffee business. For us, in this case, there is the addition of the agriculture — it’s a relentless business, which is an education every day of the year.
Our aim is to rejuvenate this farm, the buildings and the ancient trees (Monumentale). We are planning to have the commercial side of the business running in 2024.
Is there any chance of another venture into hospitality?
We have plans to build an olive mill (Frantoio), introduce a wind turbine and build itinerant worker accommodation, and on-site farm stays at the olive farm. Additionally, we need a tasting room, a cellar and, yes, a little restaurant (Tavola Calda).
The next project is creating a small corner shop, hole-in-the-wall style, olive oil bar and sandwich shop concept in London. Customers can enjoy a delicious sandwich and a glass of good wine while refilling their olive oil — all the while tasting and learning about this extraordinary product.