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Caffe Luca:

Northwest Roaster,
Global Appeal

By Kate LaPoint

When John Dema opened the doors of the first Caffé Luca retail shop and roastery, he had no idea that in less than five years he’d be opening a similar location on the other side of the world. Nor did he foresee that his small, neighborhood business would be a global force in coffee retailing.

John Dema was born in the small town of Ferrandina, Italy, near Taranto. He spent eight years at a Jesuit boarding school in Camogli, near Portofino, and attended the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, graduating with a degree in hotel administration. Dema then traveled to England, where he received hotel management training at the Savoy and the Claridge Hotels in London.

He soon moved to the U.S., taking his first job there as a manager of the Rheingold Pavillion at the World’s Fair in New York in 1964; in this position he oversaw more than 1,000 employees. Years later, Dema, along with his two partners, opened Portofino, an upscale, very successful, Italian restaurant in West Orange, New Jersey.

From there, Dema joined the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago, which was the first hotel in the U.S. operated by the Four Seasons. Soon after, his drive to see more of the world led him to the west coast where, as general manager, he opened Seattle’s Madison Hotel in 1982. Dema also worked for the Nordstrom family as director of operations, collaborating with the company’s creative team to set up its restaurants.

Finally, in 1992, he went out on his own because he wanted to be his “own measuring stick” and see if the money spent on his education so many years earlier had “paid off.”

Dema spent nearly two years researching coffee before he ever opened the doors of Caffé Luca, in Lake Oswego, Oregon, in 1994. He traveled around Italy and took lessons from his mentor, “Uncle Luca.”

“He taught me a lot about life and about business,” says Dema, keeping the secrets of his success carefully guarded.

In Italy, Dema learned the art of blending and, in the early stages of his business, he spent much time experimenting with different proportions of high-quality Arabica coffees to achieve the perfect balance of flavor, acidity, body and aroma for his espresso and drip blends. The roasting equipment Dema chose to use, and still uses, was the Diedrich IR-24K. The Caffé Luca espresso and drip coffee blends that resulted from these years of experimentation contained two high-altitude South American coffees and one high-altitude Central American coffee. To this day the company has not strayed from this “Caffé Luca blend.”

Unlike many coffee blends found in Italy, Caffé Luca coffees contain only high-altitude Arabica coffee beans. Dema says this results in a mellow, robust coffee that is never bitter. In fact, he and his master roaster, Antonio Aguirre, pride themselves on the fact that a shot of Caffé Luca espresso requires no sugar!

Dema also takes pride in his commitment to the coffee growers from whom he purchases his coffees. He buys his green coffees six months to one year in advance, always from the same growers in the same regions, even through drastic market fluctuations.

Why did Dema choose coffee as the industry where he would make his entrepreneurial mark? “It was second nature in the hospitality industry, present [on menus] from the finest restaurants to the hotel rooms. Also, being Italian, I love coffee!” explains Dema.

Soon after the first Caffé Luca opened in Lake Oswego, customers began suggesting that Dema wholesale his coffees to other coffee shops and restaurants. Using his expertise on the hotel and foodservice industries, Dema started carving out the wholesale side of his business. In 1995, Caffé Luca was chosen by Neiman Marcus to be its exclusive coffee. Caffé Luca is now available in each of Neiman Marcus’ 48 restaurants. In fact, the president of Neiman Marcus, Gerald Sampson, wrote a personal letter to John Dema saying that he drinks Caffé Luca’s Misto drip coffee blend throughout the day and that he and his wife enjoy the Gregorio espresso blend nearly every evening after dinner.

Following this success, Caffé Luca began appearing in other high-profile locations, including Seattle’s Olympic Four Seasons Hotel. On the retail front, Caffé Luca of America, Inc. (the company’s East Coast division) recently struck a deal with dozens of Shop-Rite franchises in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, under which it would install full-scale Caffé Luca coffee shops in at least one Shop-Rite store per month over the next several years.

Internationally, Caffé Luca’s expansion into Asia began in 1997 after some Japanese business executives visited the company’s booth at Coffee Fest Seattle. Soon after the visit, Dema traveled to Japan for the first time to meet with the people of One Planet, Inc. to discuss opening a Caffé Luca coffee shop at Rokko Island. The shop opened the next year. Later, in 1998, Caffé Luca opened a high-profile rooftop coffee bar at the Sony Tower (Sony’s corporate headquarters) in Osaka. Locations at Kobe’s Harbourland Shopping Center and Sony Plaza, Kobe opened soon after. The company’s first location in Seoul, Korea, opened the same month at the famous Galleria Shopping Center in cooperation with Aspen Trade.

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