Kiwi Flavours: Alun Evans, founder of Antipodean Coffee

Craving a classic meat pie in Shanghai, or the perfect flat white in the Philippines? In this series, the Asia Media Centre speaks to Kiwis who are running successful food and beverage businesses in Asia.

alun evansAlun Evans was at a party in Wellington when someone asked him, “if you could do anything, what would you do?”

The year was 1997. Evans was 29 years old, and had just been promoted to general manager of a company which supplied linen to restaurants and hotels. It was a good job with a decent salary. But that one simple question was just the prod he needed to pursue his true passion.

“I had been taught to roast by an old Italian guy in Wellington, and I’d studied economic geography at university, looking specifically at coffee farming in Indonesia. It suddenly occurred to me that I’d quite like to be doing something with coffee.”

Exactly a year to the day after that fateful party, Evans got on a plane to go and work with coffee growing communities in Indonesia. He spent a year and a half learning the language, before travelling around the archipelago.

“I met thousands of farmers who were growing coffee but either weren’t able to sell it or were being given a real hard time by coffee brokers. I decided I’d develop a network of farmers, and work with the Indonesian Department of Agriculture in Jakarta to introduce best practices for them.”

In 2003, he started his own coffee roasting business. Then he was asked to help set up in-store cafés for a local bookstore chain. Eventually, he decided to start his own café, and in 2009, he opened Antipodean Coffee in Jakarta, a café similar to what you might find in Wellington or Melbourne.

You can now find 16 Antipodean Coffee cafés across Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Evans, who now lives in Manila, says being based in Southeast Asia has given his business an edge.

“All the other big coffee companies are focusing on Japan more than Southeast Asia. But Japan’s a hard market; it’s expensive, it’s really difficult to get good leases there, and there’s a lot more competition, because the Japanese love good coffee. But I think we’re market leaders in most of the markets we’re in.”

The Philippines in particular has been a pleasant surprise, Evans says. He opened his first café in Manila just over two months ago, and had 8000 customers in the first month.

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“It’s one of Asia’s best-kept secrets when it comes to business opportunities. It’s got so much potential and not a lot of competition.”

Each market requires its own specific strategy, Evans has found. Religious differences mean variation in menus, and different cultures have different expectations.

“In Indonesia, they don’t really expect great service, but they expect great coffee, good food and a good price. In Hong Kong, they expect the absolute best service, but they’re very tight when it comes to spending money. In Kuala Lumpur they’re much more laidback, but in Malaysia there are three major groups you have to appeal to — Malay, Chinese Malaysians, Indian Malaysians and expats. So each country requires a bit of tweaking.”

His advice to Kiwis wanting to get into the food and beverage industry in Southeast Asia is to connect with people who are already based over there and “come up, work for a couple of months, and see if you like the culture”.

“New Zealanders generally have a better chance of adapting to Asian cultures because we have such a vibrant culture back home.”

Over the next 24 months, Evans plans to open four more cafes in Manila, three more in Kuala Lumpur, and open the first Antipodean Coffee in Shenzen, which will act as a launching base into China.

“I’d love to say I was like the next Starbucks guy, but trying to manage a café chain over four countries and two timezones isn’t super easy. I just do it because I love it, and I try to surround myself with people who also love what they do.”

- Asia Media Centre by Siobhan Downes