The New Zealander taking our coffee to the world

Steve Gianoutsos, head of Mojo, is excited about a move to Chicago.
Maarten Holl

Steve Gianoutsos, head of Mojo, is excited about a move to Chicago.

Steve Gianoutsos is an addict.

Yes, there's the caffeine, which his Mojo cafes serve 65,000 cups of each week. As the founder and group CEO, Gianoutsos can't go a day without drinking the dark roasted substance which his Wellington hometown is renowned for.

But the 47-year-old is also addicted to setting up new cafes.

Steve Gianoutsos has high hopes for Chicago, where he hopes to open 30 Mojo cafes.

Steve Gianoutsos has high hopes for Chicago, where he hopes to open 30 Mojo cafes.

And his latest venture is his biggest punt yet: Shifting his family of five to Chicago, to unleash his Mojo coffee brand on the US market.

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Opening his first 140-square-metre cafe there in late March, and a roastery too, his long-term goal is to have more than 30 Mojo cafes scattered around Chicago.

Father and son Lambros, left  and Steve Gianoutsos at their 10 year Mojo celebrations in 2013.
Ross Giblin

Father and son Lambros, left and Steve Gianoutsos at their 10 year Mojo celebrations in 2013.

"There's such an adrenalin rush setting up cafes. I just love it," he smiles.

Running his growing coffee empire in Wellington, and spreading it to Auckland and offshore to China and Japan, Gianoutsos has become distinctive around the Capital as he wanders from one Mojo cafe to the next with a leather satchel slung over one shoulder.

Despite the fact he has often downed several Steampunk filter coffees by noon, the jean-clad coffee baron doesn't have the caffeine-fuelled, hyperactive energy of many of the baristas working the coffee machines at Mojo's 22 Wellington cafes.

Mojo owners Steve and Julie Gianoutsos at the opening of their first China store in Xian.
Collette Devlin

Mojo owners Steve and Julie Gianoutsos at the opening of their first China store in Xian.

But the father of three reveals that his laidback attitude hides a relentless focus and drive. "Under the surface, my mind just doesn't stop," he grins.

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"There are two Steves I know. One will sit on the couch for a month, eating snacks quite comfortably, and the other one is super driven. I do this one because I'm super scared of the other one."

Chicago may not seem like a likely place to spread his coffee chain, but Gianoutsos raves about its attributes.

Mojo's first cafe in China.

Mojo's first cafe in China.

The Midwest American city reminds him of his Wellington hometown, filled with warm, laidback locals.

But the 2.7 million residents are poorly served by the cafes there. If they want a craft coffee, they're likely to line up for one in a coffee booth, and they wouldn't get a decent bite to eat too.

"There's a huge coffee culture in Chicago but a gap in the market. There is specialty coffee around but it's very small compared to Starbucks."

Chinese baristas are queuing to work at Mojo in Xian, China.

Chinese baristas are queuing to work at Mojo in Xian, China.

Chicago boasts 165 Starbucks outlets, promoting a coffee drinking style reminiscent of New Zealand cafes a couple of decades ago, when the latte bowl was de rigeur.

Americans typically drink weak coffee in large mugs heaving with milk or water, and part of Gianoutsos' challenge will be converting more Americans to specialty coffee and the Kiwi coffee culture.

Gianoutsos inherited a strong work ethic from his father, Lambros. A stone's throw from Mojo's waterfront cafe where we sit, Lambros pours coffee beans into bags in Mojo's roastery in Shed 13, a converted historic shed built in 1905 as a storehouse for the Wellington Harbour Board.

The 76-year has worked in Wellington cafes since he left his Greek island, Kastos, as a teenager, to work in his uncle's cafe, the Rose Milk Bar, on Lambton Quay. When Lambros arrived in 1960, many of Lambton Quay's milk bars and cafes and eateries were run by Greek immigrants, earning the shopping strip the moniker the "Hellenic Mile".

Lambros eventually branched out on his own, opening two eateries, which became his son's training ground. At the Tasty Sandwich Bar on Vivian Street, his son served his first customer while standing on a Coca Cola box. At the family-owned Yucatan Coffee Lounge on Cuba Street, the Gianoutsos children helped out every day after school and at weekends.​

After leaving Rongotai College, Gianoutsos joined the army, before working in real estate. Heading to London for a stint, he and wife Julie returned and opened their first cafe, Espresso Republic, on Wellington's Featherston St. That was a grind without decent coffee he could buy, and so he decided to open his own roastery, borrowing the funds.

With the city already awash with cafes, Gianoutsos' bank manager warned him it was a terrible business idea. But the cafe owner taught himself to roast coffee by reading a book, pouring his first Mojo coffee on a corner site on Wakefield Street, in 2003. Two days later, his first son, Sol, was born.

A decade later, the champagne and coffee flowed as Mojo celebrated its first decade, establishing itself as a key player on the coffee circuit. Mojo pioneered a coffee card system, where individuals and businesses can load credit on to cards. In the early days, cafe owners also received 50 per cent equity in the business; now, Mojo runs a local share scheme.

In the roasting world, Gianoutsos says his empire is small. Rival brands like L'Affare, Supreme and Auckland's Allpress fuel more Kiwis with their beans. Instead, most Mojo coffee drinkers will sip his coffee in one of the country's 34 cafes, or "shops" as he calls them. That means the business controls the quality from the bean to the cup.

"We can be as consistent as possible," he says, adding that "a good Mojo regular" will be in a Mojo cafe six times a day.

Over the years, poor performing cafes have closed when leases have expired, such as one cafe in Palmerston North.

Mojo now has five cafes in Japan which operate under a licence agreement. In August 2013, the company spread to China, opening a cafe in Xian. There, Mojo's baristas have been educating local Chinese to sip their flat whites in smaller cups.

Joining Wellington-based business partner Charlie Zheng, the cafe, followed by a second one, has been more successful than they could have imagined. Locals are paying $7 for a coffee.

"China is really exciting and they'll surpass us here in New Zealand," says Gianoutsos.

With more than 320 staff employed by Mojo, he says: "Margins are getting tighter in New Zealand. When we opened in 2003, our costs were lower. Wages and rent were lower.

"Even though our costs have doubled, the cost of a coffee hasn't."


It was a thirst for adventure as much as a desire to create an international company which saw Gianoutsos pack up his family and head to Chicago just after Christmas.

Mojo's New Zealand operation is now run by Katie Ellis, and he will return home for board meetings. Mojo also has an investment company to please, after bringing in Marmont Capital two years ago, chaired by former L'Affare co-owner Tony Kerridge.

Marmont invested an undisclosed 30 per cent into Mojo, at a time when Gianoutsos says he wanted to bring in more expertise.

"There was no pressure from them to go to Chicago. This was all about me. We're comfortable - we could go and live in Greece for a year if we liked. But we need to keep growing."

He also wants to spread the risk away from a Wellington-based business. After the November 11 quake that rocked the capital, he says: "We'd be out of business if that quake had been centred in Wellington. That's not the reason why we should go overseas but it is good to spread the risk a bit.

"New Zealand business being strong gives us the ability to be strong internationally. I want to build a strong international business."

Would he eventually sell – after all, one of two big players in the Chicago craft coffee scene, Intelligentsia, with 20 cafes, sold a majority stake to Peets Coffee last year for NZ$139 million. Shaking his head, Gianoutsos says: "Something I've learned, after travelling around and looking at other businesses, is that you don't set up a business to sell it. This isn't a short term thing for us, but who knows? I see myself doing this for a long, long time."

As a flurry of Mojos have opened up over the past few years there have been comments that Wellington now boasts more Mojos than McDonalds.

Aware that Mojo could be typecast as a mass market coffee chain, he is keen to keep its boutique image, and to continue to promote the brand as a family-run business. "Some of the Mojo owners have been with me for 13 years, and that's one of the most satisfying things about what I do."

But he does reflect on the Kiwi attitude towards success, firing a parting shot.

"Part of our driver is that just because you're bigger doesn't mean you're s.... One thing I'm looking forward to in the US is that they celebrate success really well. We don't do it so well here."

His own secret to success? "No university degree," he laughs. "Seriously, you don't have blinkers. But it's hard work.

"Nothing comes easy. If something comes easy, I wouldn't trust it. It's about perseverance and believing in what you do. It's the same recipe for anything."

 - Stuff


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