Retail Revolution   /   February 23, 2022

The rise, fall and potential resurrection of a coffee brewing legend

A Reddit post recently gave specialty coffee aficionados a scare. The title “Is Bonavita going out of business?” was enough to send shivers down many a spine. It described a beloved coffee hardware company now perpetually out of stock, not responding to customer inquiries and informing some people that parts were no longer available. 

“Wow that leaves quite a hole in the market,” one user wrote. 

For coffee lovers both professional and amateur, sometimes a brewer is not merely a brewer; Bonavita represented an industry-wide shift that transformed quality coffee making at home into a more reachable and less expensive endeavor. 

Bonavita was an early entrant into the mainstream pro-sumer space. For good reason: it was one of the first devices available in the U.S. to make an actually good automatic drip machine that didn’t cost an arm and a leg – and it received many accolades to back that up. As a result, Bonavita helped hasten a major shift in popular coffee culture. 

Was this Reddit post correct? Is Bonavita calling it quits? Similar to the flavor profile of an Ethiopian single origin, the answer is complex. One version says that Bonavita never went out of business, but was instead hampered by its former U.S. distributor. Now, these stakeholders say, Bonavita is about to rise from the ashes like a phoenix and relaunch like never before: new products are on the horizon, along with old favorites. 

But there may be more to it than just that. Court documents, for instance, give a more nuanced view, highlighting frictions between its Chinese manufacturer and U.S. distributor — as well as heightening tension with a competing brand named Brewista. Some parties have alleged breach of contract and bad faith business dealings, others have gone bankrupt. Meanwhile, demand for higher-end coffee pots has increased as bigger appliance names began to enter into the space. What’s resulted is a clogged and muddy mess on all counts. 

Bonavita heralds a new coffee category

Simplicity, precision and affordability have always been important selling points for the Bonavita brand. It launched in late 2011, and its two most popular products perform key coffee-making functions that may seem simple, yet are difficult for hardware to do repeatedly and consistently.

Bonavita’s gooseneck kettle became industry-standard devices in specialty coffee shops within only a few years. Meanwhile, the Bonavita automatic drip brewer — which sold for around $150 — did a simple task that, until then, only machines much more expensive were able to do.

“We were all taught that most brewers don’t get water hot enough or spit it out at the right rate,” said Katie Carguilo, western coffee manager at Counter Culture Coffee. 

One machine that could do that was the Technivorm Moccamaster — a Dutch contraption that likely looked modern and space-age when it first launched in 1969. Over the years, the Moccamaster has maintained its signature aesthetic and feel, giving it a now-passé and almost brutalist appeal. The device has long been considered the gold standard of home coffee brewers, but retailed for nearly $300. 

One of the biggest gripes coffee lovers consistently have with machines is their inability to heat water to the desired temperature. This makes for an under-extracted product, in layman terms: weak coffee. This became such a big problem that a governing coffee body known as the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) began offering a certification for home brewers. Certified brewers meet certain minimum standards: the water must hit the ideal brewing temperature, the machine should brew a full pot of coffee from start to finish within four and eight minutes and the brew basket size needs to be in the correct proportions to the carafe. 

A decade ago, however, the coffee machine competitive landscape was much less crowded. As Brian Gross, one of the people who first designed the Bonavita brewer, told PBS in 2018, the aha moment came when he read a Cooks Illustrated article in 2010 that stated there were only two SCA certified brewers on the market. 

So Gross was hired by a Chinese manufacturer named Smartco to build out what would ultimately become the Bonavita trademark. In 2012, Smartco entered into a trademark agreement with a Washington-based distribution company called Espresso Supply, Inc and began selling the brand’s kettles and brewers nationwide. Both Espresso Supply and Gross declined to comment on this article.

With this agreement, Bonavita the brand was essentially the child of a Chinese manufacturer and Washington distributor. One side made the products, the other sold and marketed them. But, the two parents didn’t always see eye to eye.

According to Jim Peterson, one of the first salespeople for the Bonavita account (who is now working with Smartco to relaunch the brand), Bonavita’s launch was perfectly timed with a growing coffee zeitgeist. Most of Espresso Supply’s sales were business-to-business, catering to the needs of baristas and coffee shops. But third wave (industry jargon for ‘craft’) coffee was increasingly popular among young people at the time, and demand was increasing for at-home rigs.

Indeed, in 2013, there were 68% more coffeeshops in the U.S. compared to a decade previously, and overall coffee consumption had grown 4% in 2013 year-over-year, according to the SCA. “It was coffee shops that said to Espresso Supply that there’s business here — you have a retail business,” Peterson recounted.

As Gross described it to PBS, “we had found a blue ocean.”

“It was pretty remarkable to see,” said Mark Hellweg, founder of the specialty coffee retailer Clive Coffee. His business has sold high-end coffee equipment to consumers since 2007. In Hellweg’s estimation, the rise of Bonavita — and nicer auto-drip brewing devices as a whole — was a natural after-effect of the third wave coffee shop culture. “It started with specialty cafés and roasters, and the home market followed,” he said. “People started thinking about their home gear more intently,” he said. 

Bonavita, Hellweg said, “did an amazing job at educating [consumers] on what goes into a proper filter brewer.” For a little bit, he recounted, Bonavita and Moccamaster were the only options. 

Even professional coffee makers began to notice the shift. “There was a while in the industry when the snobs in coffee were saying there’s no good way to make coffee at home — no machines that do it. Or, there is a way but it’s very expensive,” said Counter Culture’s Carguilo, who was crowned United States Barista Champion in 2012. “I remember at the time when Bonavita came on the market. [I thought] finally you can make a good cup of coffee [and also] I can recommend this to people,” said Carguilo.

After its initial launch, Bonavita sales quickly began to grow. In the first quarter of hitting the market in 2012, the company sold nearly $3 million worth of product. By 2016 it was bringing in north of $50 million in revenue — with sales consistently growing 70% year-over-year between 2013 and 2016, according to Peterson. Bonavita’s brewer was soon available in top retailers like Williams-Sonoma and Crate and Barrel. 

This sales boost happened in tandem with a larger shift in online marketing and commerce strategies. Sites like the Wirecutter and the CNET were growing their mainstream audiences, catering to a group of well-informed aficionados that had increased spending power and social media accounts. When researching and buying a new item, no longer was it merely a question of durability; branding and street cred were being layered atop products like boring old coffee pots.

Bonavita was one of the first sub-$200 brewers to receive a professional certification, something many an online reviewer could point to in their write-ups. As a result, Bonavita paved the way for a certain type of higher-level consumer device that grew because of an avalanche of earned media. In tandem, a culture of goods denoting the type of end-user began to blossom.

With that, of course, came increased competition. In only a few years, a slew of larger home appliance brands began making their own automatic drip machines aimed at home baristas. What’s more, they followed the same marketing playbook Bonavita had championed — namely, getting industry certification and seeking out validation from respected industry veterans. By 2018, Breville, Cuisinart, KitchenAid and Oxo had launched new machines that received the SCA seal of approval.

According to Peterson, many of these companies were adding bells and whistles — like in-machine grinders — to make for a higher price-point. “To us, they were just adding intimidation factors to the consumer,” he said. But they were also adding validation of a new type category. 

“It took only a year or two before those others started hitting the market,” said Clive Coffee’s Hellweg. Bonavita was “very influential in getting all the big manufacturers to think about specialty coffee and SCA certification.” Hellweg himself was even swayed; a little after Bonavita launched, he founded his own automatic drip machine brand, Ratio, which now retails for between $345 and $795.

Murky, competitive and litigious

But, during Bonavita’s rise, there were more than a few quietly growing conflicts behind the scenes. For one, Brian Gross — despite being the brains behind Bonavita — began building out another brand called Brewista, which was still manufactured by Smartco but not distributed by Espresso Supply. Since Gross was employed by Smartco at the time, the Brewista brand was also owned by its Chinese manufacturer.

As the coffee industry publication Sprudge wrote in 2015, “former Bonavita employees are attempting to launch a line of brewers, kettles, glassware and scales that are equal parts durable and affordable.” There were some interesting similarities between Brewista and Bonavita. Most glaringly: Brewista was made by the same manufacturer — Smartco — and sold some products that had overlapping functionality to Bonavita’s, such as gooseneck kettles. 

The relationship between Gross and his Chinese manufacturer began to sour. In 2020, Smartco sued Brian Gross for breach of contract and trademark infringement in relation to Brewista. Essentially, Smartco alleged that Gross was beginning to market Brewista as his own and had plans to spin out his own U.S.-based business, when the Chinese company was the rightful owner. Gross tried to fight these lawsuits, but ultimately filed for bankruptcy later in 2020 thus ending the legal battle and giving Smartco the keys to the brand. 

And while Gross was building out Brewista, Espresso Supply was dealing with its own legal headaches dating back as far as 2015. The first involved a then-newly acquired brand, which made a reusable Keurig cup, and an alleged copycat brand on Amazon. Another lawsuit levied by Espresso Supply two years later also went after an alleged copycat of one of Espresso Supply’s barista milk pitcher brands. (To make matters even juicier, the latter alleged copycat company shared the same Wyoming office address as Brewista.) 

When all was said and done, Espresso Supply was in and out of court fighting IP infringement until 2021.

The final legal battle

Espresso Supply was, for the most part, victorious in these legal disputes, but they took time — and almost certainly a lot of money. And, according to Peterson, there was a growing fear that the Bonavita business was stagnating as a result. “A commitment to newness was lost in the shuffle,” he said. With that came another realization on the Bonavita team that “to move the brand forward Smartco has got to hold it.” 

At the beginning of 2021, Smartco informed Espresso Supply that it was ending its trademark agreement with its distributor of nine years. “At the end of the day, we had an agreement — and contract — and it expired,” said Carolyn Chen, a vp at Smartco who is also helping relaunch the Bonavita brand. “When we tried to renew terms, we couldn’t come to an agreement.”

According to court documents, that’s not exactly how Espresso Supply understood the matter. A motion filed in 2021 by Espresso Supply alleged that a Smartco employee (Carolyn Chen) “​​sent an e-mail to Espresso Supply’s President stating that the IDA [international distribution agreement] was being reviewed by Smartco ‘for updates & such (for example, the named party will need to be changed to Smartco Int’l HK instead of Smartco Int’l Asia Ltd). Once the review has been done, we will send to you.’”

A month later, the legal motion went on, “Smartco’s President Steven Ku sent an e-mail to Espresso Supply erroneously stating that the IDA expired.” Following that, “Smartco ceased fulfilling orders from Espresso Supply.” What’s more, Espresso Supply alleged in the court filings that Smartco began working with competing distributors and pricing the products below the agreed-upon price-point. (The case was later dismissed by a judge over a dispute of the terms of contract – which Espresso Supply is currently appealing.)

According to the court documents, Smartco stopped fulfilling orders in the beginning of 2021. As a result, Espresso Supply could no longer offer customer service, sell new devices or do any type of business with newly-made Bonavita products; Espresso Supply still held the keys to the website and the social media accounts, but the manufacturer wasn’t giving its former distributor any product or support.

Smartco’s telling is a little different. The company declined to go into details about the move to end the trademark agreement, but likened it to a messy divorce.  “We did everything we could do to make a nice transition,” said Chen. “Bonavita is a nice brand and we didn’t want to lose that.” 

With all of these cases, there are lessons to be learned even for the coffee-averse — especially for brands that think they have rights to certain trademarks. “I think it all comes down to what is in that distribution agreement and how things are spelled out or not,” said Sucharita Kodali, a principal analyst at Forrester. “When stuff like this goes down, you want to be thankful you had a lawyer look over terms and make sure you’re protected,” she said.

A coffee brand reborn

For Chen, the past (and, perhaps, some of the present) is not what’s important for Bonavita. She’s focused on the future. “Moving forward in 2022, we’re very excited,” Chen said. The company is restocking its customer favorites, as well as expanding into new colors and features (such as offering a removable water tank).

Over the last year, Smartco has been testing out new designs, began prototyping models late last year and is hoping they will be ready to hit shelves by this summer. “We’re super excited we got that off the ground,” said Chen. Smartco is also handling all of the distribution from now on via its own facility in Brea, California — which Chen says is already stocked with new items ready to be sold.

The company is also planning a marketing bonanza, tied with key coffee professional events and trade shows in March and April. “We know March is the big time when you’ve got your housewares shows,” said Chen. “This is when buyers are looking — you have to get things in.”

In a few weeks’ time, Bonavita is slated to be reborn, albeit with some changes. For one, it will have a new website — bonavita.life, instead of its better-known bonavitaworld.com. The company is going to try and make new social accounts and find new brand ambassadors to rep the line.

In the past, said Chen, most of Bonavita’s marketing was organic. Now, “it’s going to be a mix,” she said. “Bonavita has great SEO, we’re basically going to elevate that and amplify.” What’s more, email marketing is going to be a big emphasis; “[it’s about] getting that story to the consumer directly from Bonavita.” 

In Chen’s and Peterson’s description, it’s a new era for Bonavita. “We’re getting back to basics here,” said Peterson. “The group that’s together now is the group that built this team. We always had thoughts of getting back together, and then the time unfolded imperfectly.” 

But a lot of questions remain unanswered. Since Smartco was victorious in both of its cases, Chen is now at the helm of two different coffee companies: Bonavita and Brewista. Will anything change between the two? In a follow-up email, Chen said that she sees the two brands as distinct and going after separate markets. “We do feel that Brewista is a little more specialized, more for the coffee aficionado,” she said. Still, there may be some marketing overlap of the two; “due to Bonavita’s popularity, we do think it’s best to strategize as brought to you by the same company that makes your beloved Bonavita products,” she explained.

When asked how the new team would handle customer service and warranty requests from older customers that have been in the dark over the last year, Chen referred to the new website which has “our warranty page and customer support page, including chat function, FAQs.”

But as Bonavita seeks to relaunch, the broader atmosphere has changed. Bonavita’s initial rise came because it represented a growing home craft coffee culture. While most households still have an automatic drip machine at home, there are new players in town. For example, startups like Cometeer are making instant coffee into something even industry professionals are paying attention to.

Clive Coffee’s Hellweg recently went to Milan to attend a big coffee festival there and noticed the changing buzz. “There’s a massive push towards capsule stuff,” he said. “I’m not vehemently opposed to it — there’s a good and a bad way to do it.” 

But it could take out some of the air and buzz that was once relegated toward developments from brands like Bonavita. “The way Bonavita made brewing at [home] coffee more accessible — and coffee pros had to acquiesce that people can make [good coffee] at home — is the same with Cometeer,” said Carguilo. 

Carguilo did add that the real competitive marks for those startups are K-Cups and Nespresso — that is: ubiquitous, even simpler vehicles for drip coffee — not so much all automatic drip rigs. Still, the fact that they are turning professionals’ heads indicates that mainstream coffee consumption patterns and expectations are changing. And it could mean a more difficult market for the new Bonavita. 

Which is to say: the coffee industry is not what it was nine years ago. “I’m really happy that great coffee is making it to people and in so many more spaces than before,” said Carguilo. “Before, you had to go to a coffee shop, and it probably had to be in a certain area. Now, in the short span of a decade, really good coffee is making it into more spaces.” 

Now, Bonavita needs to just elbow its way back into those spaces. 

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