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Single-Cup Pioneer Cy Melikian Recalls Genesis Of Espresso 'Pod' As ABCD Gears Up To Meet Growing OCS Specialty Coffee Demand

Posted On: 9/25/2001

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WEST CONSHOHOCKEN, PA - The widespread implementation of espresso systems using portion-packed doses of ground roast coffee has made espresso-based beverages a practical proposition in workplaces and foodservice establishments. Freeing users from the need to train a barrista to measure, dose and tamp the coffee has enabled a much larger public to enjoy the product that has played such a major role in the specialty coffee revolution.

A leading supplier of espresso "pods" to fit Faema and other premium equipment is Automatic Brewers & Coffee Devices here. The company's founder, Cyrus Melikian, is well-known to the vending industry as a pioneer in single-cup coffee machine development. He also produced the first espresso "pods," more than 30 years ago.

As an engineer in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, Melikian worked on improvements to the famous B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber and its successor, the B-29 "Superfortress." Stationed at Wright Field in Dayton, OH, he met the late Lloyd Rudd, forming a friendship that would launch an important segment of the postwar vending industry.

Melikian recalled that he and Rudd went to the Post Exchange for a cup of coffee one day, only to find it closed. Rudd noticed a "Coca-Cola" bottle vending machine (manufactured by Mills Novelty Co.), offering a cold drink for a nickel, and said, "I wonder why no one has made a machine to sell a cup of coffee?"

It seemed to them that someone must have thought of such a simple idea, but they initiated a patent search and learned that the field was wide open for innovation. So, after the war ended and they separated from the Army, the two engineers formed Rudd-Melikian, Inc. in Hatboro, PA. In 1946, they introduced their first coffee vender, which used liquid coffee concentrate (stored frozen until thawed for loading into the machine). It could deliver a cup in three seconds.

The vending industry in 1946 was predominantly a "street" business, with a few operators offering cigarettes, candy and gum in offices and factories. The idea of a refreshment services industry for workplaces was in its infancy, so the Rudd-Melikian organization offered equipment, training, and marketing support to operators interested in forming "Kwik Kafe" franchises. The idea caught on, and many of those businesses evolved into operations that survive today.

The Kwik Kafe franchisees had an annual meeting, Melikian explained. At the 1956 conference, Fred Sarkis, who had the franchise for Rochester, NY, stood up and said that what he really wanted was a machine that could deliver freshly-brewed coffee, one cup at a time. In the discussion that followed, he convinced Rudd-Melikian that he had a valid marketing concept and was serious enough about implementing it to make a substantial financial commitment.


As Melikian recalls it, the idea of sealing precisely proportioned quantities of ground roast coffee between two layers of filter paper, forming "pods" whose geometry was optimized for flavor extraction, occurred to him while traveling. He interrupted his trip to make notes and sketches for a machine that would accept a continuous-feed roll of these "pods," with an indexing mechanism to position each precisely in a brew-chamber that would close tightly around the "pod," then force optimally-heated water through it.

The wet grounds were contained by the filter-paper, which was fed into a waste bucket for neat, easy disposal upon servicing.

The machine was produced, and unveiled at the National Automatic Merchandising Association annual trade show in 1958. The technology proved extremely durable, and the Rudd-Melikian plant was still producing "pods" for these machines two decades later.

In the late 1960s, Melikian reported, the company licensed an Italian company to produce the vending machines and the machinery for forming the coffee "pods." The license included a Rudd-Melikian tabletop single-cup coffee brewer for smaller locations, marketed in the U.S. under the "Old Mill" name.

The Italian licensee observed that the "pod" was almost precisely the size and shape of the "portafilter" that held the dose of ground roast coffee for an espresso machine (55mm. in diameter , about 21/6 ins. , containing 7 grams of coffee). If a "pod" were cut out of its filter roll, very carefully, it thus might provide an easy way to prepare a cup of espresso without measuring and tamping. This worked very well in tests, since the "pod" when wetted expanded to fill the brew cavity snugly, insuring that the pressurized water would be forced directly through the bed.

After considerable market research and discussion, it was concluded that this idea would not be popular with the barristas in Italian foodservice establishments.

However, Illycaffè (Trieste, Italy), a company that has specialized in espresso since 1933, recognized the "pod" as the solution to a problem that had slowed its expansion into international markets: outside Italy, there was no barrista tradition , and very few people knew how to dose and tamp the coffee. "With a 'pod,' anyone could do it," Melikian told V/T.

Illycaffè also recognized that there was a sizable home market populated by people who would prize the convenience of the "pod" in preparing espresso. To address this audience, the company specified a pod 45mm. in diameter (just over 13D4 ins.), which would not work properly in commercial equipment so the barristas would be happy but would fit the proprietary portafilter on a suitably designed home unit. This pod also contained 7g of coffee, but the bed depth was greater.

Rudd-Melikian adapted its packaging machinery to feed the filter-tape roll through a punch and die assembly that works like a cookie-cutter to produce circular "pods" and deliver them to another machine for individual bagging in foil, gas-flushing and sealing. This system is in use today.

The 55mm "pods" found favor with pioneering operators marketing espresso to foodservice establishments. The next step occurred when one of them, in California, asked what could be done about a two-cup "pod."


Melikian's response was to increase the thickness, or bed depth, of the 55mm "pod" so it would hold 14g of ground roast coffee, and to modify the brew group slightly. The interior figure of the "portafilter" was stepped, with the wider top step sized to accommodate the 55mm "pod" and the narrower lower one providing a recess into which a 45mm single-cup "pod" would fit snugly.

A divided spout was provided to fit beneath the "portafilter" when used in two-cup mode. The brewed coffee flows into the stem of a Y-shaped fitting and is delivered to two cups, side by side, simultaneously. The complete system allows the user, who requires no special training, to prepare one or two "single-shot" cups, or one "double-shot" cup, with equal ease and speed.

The Rudd-Melikian organization, which during its long history produced liquid-concentrate, soluble and single-cup fresh-brew vending machines, was acquired by an international company with headquarters in Germany and renamed Refreshment Machinery, Inc. This, in turn, was purchased by Automatic Products international, ltd. (St. Paul, MN), and remains one of the two leading American manufacturers of hot beverage merchandisers.

Melikian observed that the pleasures of running a large company are outweighed by the worries. After selling RMi, he served as a consultant to its new owners. Asked for a sales idea, he replied, "have the machine grind the coffee just before brewing it." Asked why, he explained that the inside of a coffee vending machine tends to be warm and humid, conditions under which ground coffee stales very rapidly. Coffee in bean form has vastly less surface area and is naturally protected against oxidation. "When people know the coffee is freshly ground, one cup at a time, they know what they're buying," he said.

Melikian emphasized that there is never any lack of creative ideas for new technology. The great need is for effective marketing, the art of lucidly demonstrating how and why the new technology is better for the ultimate consumer. Many excellent concepts have gone nowhere for lack of this ability to communicate benefits.

Unlike his long-time friend and partner Rudd, who had always wanted to be a rancher and who realized that dream, Melikian wished to stay active in the coffee industry, but with a small and creative company.


He therefore founded Automatic Brewers & Coffee Devices, which today is a leading producer of espresso "pods" in the United States. It does not roast coffee, but packages it under private label and under its own "Pod Perfect" brand. The company also sells its unique "pod" forming and packaging machinery to coffee roasting companies around the world.

ABCD is a distributor of premium espresso products, including the prestigious brewing line produced by Faema S.p.a. (Milan, Italy), Lavazza's self-service "Espresso Point" system, and the Nuova Simonelli brewer.

Cyrus Melikian's son Robert joined him in the ABCD venture, and has long been an active member of the Keystone Coffee Association. A new addition to the ABCD team is Bonnie Natal, a sales professional with long experience in coffee service and vending who is immediate past-president of KCA.

The Melikians see the workplace refreshment industry and the foodservice business in general moving together, as coffee service and vending operators seek new markets for their skills, and foodservice organizations recognize the size and importance of the "at-work" component of the consumer base. With ABCD's long experience in developing technology and the marketing tools to support it, father and son expect ABCD to play a key role in expediting this convergence.

Information on Automatic Brewers & Coffee Devices products and services may be had from the company at 10 Union Hill Rd., West Conshohocken, PA 19428-2745, tel. (800) 848-9922 or (610) 825-0640; on the Internet, www.abcd-pods.com.