Former La Marzocco CEO Kent Bakke opens Bakke Coffee Museum

Bakke Coffee Museum

After 24 years at the helm of La Marzocco International, former CEO Kent Bakke is starting a new chapter as director of the Bakke Coffee Museum, which celebrates his love for espresso machines and the art of storytelling.

Some people like to collect stamps, others wine and classic cars, but for former La Marzocco CEO Kent Bakke, a collection of hundreds of commercial espresso machines and other coffee technology artefacts makes him one of the world’s largest collectors of the coffee industry’s most precious displays of design and artisan craftsmanship.

Unlike stamps, Kent’s collection is not dainty nor light. With a collection of heavy machines spanning more than 100 years of coffee history, Kent bought a building in his hometown of Seattle, United States to house his collection after La Marzocco’s factory in Florence start to overflow with his own personal collection.

“In Italy, back in the 70s and 80s, old coffee machines were not kept for very long in a working café. I’d go to the La Marzocco factory and ask where all the old machines were kept, and the staff would say in broken English, ‘throw out’. They kept very little of their history,” Kent recalls.

“On some of my earliest trips to Florence, I’d end up at a coffee roastery and notice an old La Marzocco that the factory didn’t have. The very first machine I bought was a one-group lever La Marzocco and I gave it to the factory.”

He then picked up a two-group La Marzocco Lever, found some more old machines in New York cafés, and kept going every time a shiny piece caught his eye.

“Somewhere along the line in the late 80s, I met a gentleman named Ambrogio Fumagalli. He’d written a little pocket-sized book on coffee makers. He was the earliest person I recall that had been collecting. He had worked in the 50s for Pavoni and Gaggia, and had a long history collecting interesting small commercial machines,” Kent says.

Kent started acquiring some machines from Ambrogio, along with collector Enrico Maltoni, the late-Belaroma Founder Ian Bersten, other people he met on his collecting journey, even some odd finds on eBay.

“At some point I thought, ‘well someday I’d like to have a coffee machine museum,” Kent says.

That day is now, and that dream has become a reality. Kent has opened the Bakke Coffee Museum in Seattle to demonstrate the evolution of different coffee machines, which includes 250-plus models, a few 100 small coffee pieces, and a dozen grinders. He is also in the process of constructing another smaller museum in Florence.

“Each coffee machine has a story behind it. There are people that envisioned that machine, who built it, and that used to work on it. Some of the stories have been lost, but there are some we hope to recreate,” he says.

“If somebody dragged you along to our museum, even if you’re not a coffee drinker or really interested in equipment, I would hope that we have created an experience that’s entertaining and that can show you something you didn’t know.”

Kent says the museum is a trip down memory lane and a snapshot in time for coffee culture throughout the ages.

“In the beginning I really didn’t have money to buy machines. They were much less expensive back then. As business became more successful, I found a few more resources. I had no criteria for machines. I have machines from Italy of course, and the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Spain, and the US,” Kent says.

“I had the luxury of having the space to buy big machines. I have several large, six-group machines, and I’ve got my eye on more. I’m still collecting.”

Among his collection is a vertical Universal espresso machine with a lever group attached, suggesting it’s of post-war era, and a few functioning pre-war vertical machines.

“I have some instruction manuals and records. You can understand how a machine works, but it also makes you question what the beverage was really like back then,” Kent says. “Did they serve a blend or single origin back in the beginning? What were the grinders like? What was the roast? What was the size of the beverage? I have a booklet that says it took 45 seconds to make an espresso. But we don’t know how many grams. What was the extraction like? Did it have crema?”

The most prized possession in Kent’s collection, however, is one that’s more sentimental than practical.

“I still have the first espresso machine I ever owned from 1977, which was from a café space in Seattle where I was opening a restaurant with friends. It’s not really a modern version of an antique machine, dating from 1973. It is a replica Victoria Arduino vertical machine that’s now 50 years old,” he says.

“In the beginning, I bought machines because they were cool. Now, as I’m trying to organise the collection, I find the machines that I thought were complete and fine from the outside, aren’t so complete when you open them up. Even if I was able to restore one machine a month, it would take a long time. I am now more interested in preserving machines in a functional condition.”

Kent says this journey of discovery is exactly the type of intention he wants the museum to embrace. In time, he hopes to interview baristas and café owners about their stories and experiences, and design a ‘family tree’ of baristas at a specific time and place to track their career progression and journey in coffee.

“We all start somewhere,” Kent says. “Stories, experience and life, this is what coffee is all about.”

Kent graduated from college in 1974 and worked in a hamburger stand in Seattle before buying a defunct soup and sandwich shop, which was renamed Hibble & Hyde’s in Pioneer Square, the old part of town. It had an espresso machine in it, the Victoria Arduino mentioned above, and it sparked Kent’s curiosity.

“I hadn’t seen one before, or if I had, I didn’t know what it was,” Kent says. “I like mechanical stuff and I was fascinated. I didn’t know that it didn’t work. There was a motor thing or pump that didn’t make any noise. I didn’t know what it was for. But I put coffee into the machine, and brown liquid would come out. Sometimes foam would appear when steaming the milk, and sometimes it didn’t. I wasn’t a coffee drinker at the time,” he says.

Back then, Kent recalls only eight espresso machines in Seattle, one of which he owned.

He started going round to coffee shops, pretending to be an espresso machine technician. He’d take the top off and stare awkwardly at the inside components, wondering what each did. He eventually learnt how to change the portafilter gasket, how to remove the steam valve, and other basic repairs. A discussion with Kent’s business partner determined that if he could fix these machines, he should sell them too.

In 1978, Kent and his business partners travelled to Italy to visit espresso machine manufacturers. CMA invited him to its factory in Veneto. Next, they ended up in Florence, and after seeing so many La Marzocco machines there, they contacted the company to visit its factory on the edge of Florence. There, they met with Piero Bambi, La Marzocco Engineer and son of the founding brothers.

Back in the US, it was an interesting time for the country with lots of young people trying to evolve the food and coffee culture after travelling to Europe and gaining interest in better quality coffee.

“The specialty movement in the US really started at a grassroots level. It was really small and slow. But people that had been introduced to a different type of quality of coffee wanted to do something to ‘spread the gospel’, so to speak. We were on board with that. If we sold one machine a month, we thought we had done something to help that movement,” he says.

Kent and his partners sold, installed, trained, and serviced La Marzocco espresso machines to the American market, first to the Northwest states: Washington, Alaska, Idaho, California, and Montana. He used the yellow pages and went door knocking, tasked with convincing people that espresso coffee was economically feasible and a worthwhile investment for a market that didn’t really exist. It was a slow and steady process.

It took Kent one year to sell his first machine after his initial trip to Italy. To Kent, this was a sign of great things to come.

“We would go out to market and ask: ‘Have you thought about serving espresso coffee?’ Some people had no clue what we were talking about, and for others, it was ‘nasty Italian stuff’. We discovered that people liked to drink a lot of milk coffees, so we changed our marketing strategy to selling ‘cappuccino machines’,” Kent recalls.

“It had a much better ring to it. Since nobody really knew what coffee beverages were, we were really selling a beverage concept, not a machine. We built a cart to house the espresso machine, and we took every opportunity to set it up at any event we could. Even if there was only 10 or 20 people, it was a great way to introduced people to espresso coffee beverages. America is a filter coffee nation. Even to this day, espresso makes up only 30 per cent of the market.”

By the time the Specialty Coffee Association launched in the early 80s, a whole generation was inspired to roast coffee, and as Kent best puts it, “things were starting to wake up”.

“It was a time of social and cultural change, including lots of food development, so we were in the right place at the right time,” he says.

“I’d go to Italy and see all the coffee bars, see how coffee should taste, then bring that back and translate it to the US market without bastardising the product.”

Over time, the uptake grew, and Kent become recognised as a pioneer of the espresso movement in the US. Just like the collection of coffee machines he is now gifting to the world to view, Kent says he is fortunate to have endured a career that celebrates the evolution of coffee, including its progression in Australia.

“For years people told me I had to go to Australia and check it out, and on my first trip I was blown away by the quality and volume of coffee that people consume,” Kent says.

“It’s inspiring to see the level of sophistication, passion, and execution for great quality coffee. My thanks to all of you, and I hope you’ll come visit the museum in Seattle one day. It’s waiting for you.”

This article appears in the February 2024 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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