Sotos Michael dreamed of constructing a coffee empire on the ancient Greek island of Crete. The notion that hot coffee is an odd pairing with 100-degree temperatures couldn’t deter Michael. Nor would he be slowed by the adversity of building a business in the midst of financial tumult and social upheaval.
We’re sitting at the communal table of the pared-down but cozy Kross Coffee Works, stationed in a small square in old-town Chaniá, Crete’s second largest city. The shop is a blend of old world and new. The pre–World War I structure houses a slew of cutting-edge coffee equipment, including a custom three-group La Marzocco FB80. Kross serves selection of coffee from London-based Ozone Coffee Roasters, aided by a fleet of Mahlkönig EK 43, Mahlkönig K30, and Mazzer Robur grinders.
It’s the third shop of what Michael hopes will be many more. Talking to him now, his confidence seems justifiable; his outlets are busy and he’s making a name for himself not just in Greece but internationally. Yet in 2005 when Sotos and his brother Stavros started in the coffee trade, his aspirations were laughably unrealistic. Back then he was selling beans and equipment and, by law, that’s where it had to stop.
“There was a law in Greece that you couldn’t sell beans and coffee in the same place,” he says. “That changed in 2009 and the year after, we started serving coffee.”
Bespoke, the brothers’ first space built to sell beans and serve coffee, followed in 2011. Sotos and Stavros could have stopped there but the very suggestion induces a look of amused incredulity in Michael.
“The idea was never to open one shop and leave it there,” he says. “From the start we wanted to make a difference on the island and make an impact on Greek culture as a whole.”
Michael explains that though there were some great coffee places in Greece, they were concentrated in Athens. Born in London, Michael relocated to Crete in 2001. He kept his eye on trends in the UK, watching as the coffee scene exploded in London.
“A lot of this was down to Australians and New Zealanders moving there and setting up shop,” says Michael of
London’s coffee scene. “It has this amazing multicultural, outward-looking vibe and that’s something we wanted to recreate in Greece.”
The brothers’ revolution was a subtle one, starting with the coffee—particularly the cold offerings.
“We wanted to keep it simple,” Michael says. “Cold coffee has always been popular in Greece but the quality wasn’t there. It was all about cold instant coffee.”
Michael was unwilling to sell cold, instant coffee, so he focused his energy on developing a cold-brew to offer to customers. They’ve been serving their version of cold-brew for five years, adapting it along the way to suit local tastes. “I’d normally go for a dilution of equal amounts of coffee to water in the initial brew, then add the same volume of water again before serving,” Michael explains. “At the start customers found it too thin; because of the temperatures here the ice melts really quickly and by the end of the drink it would be really watery. We’ve now changed the dilution ratio to incorporate the weight of ice in the glass.”
Sotos and Stavros have also innovated with filter coffee, dripping it directly onto the ice below, which Sotos explains is based in solid logic.
“As soon as the coffee hits the ice, the aromas are trapped so you’re not losing the aromatics. The other benefit is the speed; you can serve it pretty soon after it’s ordered,” he says.
The various presentations of coffee are central to the brothers’ pioneering spirit but the premises are also integral to their philosophy. A combination of restricted finances and a desire to do things differently led them to choose locations for their shops that Michael refers to as “B locations.”
“We didn’t want to go to the main streets, we wanted to revive older, forgotten parts of town,” he says.
Kross is the epitome of this vision. Narrow but surprisingly light and airy, it’s nestled on the edge of the city center. It’s all clean lines, quirky alcoves, and sun-kissed outdoor seating; a transformation from the state of disrepair in which the brothers discovered it.
“It dates back to before the first world war and it was a complete mess,” Michael says. “We couldn’t even tell what it had been used for, maybe a shop, maybe a house. But it has these lovely high walls and ceilings and loads of nooks and crannies.”
A painstaking renovation has turned Kross Coffee into a chic venue of which Michael is understandably proud. But Sotos, Stavros, and their crew of talented baristas continue to look beyond Crete, both to the national stage—where several Kross baristas have reached the finals of the barista championship—and to the international scene, where the brothers ponder just how far their coffee empire can reach.
—Elizabeth Hotson is a London-based journalist.