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Smaller Companies Thrive On Bar/Cafe Business: Why? (cont.)

1. Staunchly Roman Vicere

Like many Italian roasteries, Caffe Vicere is a product of WWII recovery - it was founded in 1947 - and like almost every Italian coffee company it is a family affair as intensely bonded as most Italian families in general are themselves.

Caffe Vicere can be found in the dusty outskirts of Rome, which is its prime market for bar/cafe coffee. It is not a ‘headquarters’ and there hardly seem to be any offices at all. Instead it is a newish warehouse, part of which is a working roasting plant, part of which is an active stock and distribution point for a large number of items. At the Vicere company, the feeling is that this is 100% working space and all other niceties would distract the very small workforce from their primary concern, the production of fresh roasted coffee and its distribution along with allied supplies, equipment and services.

Caffe Vicere survives almost exclusively on its bar/cafe business - but seems to survive quite well as its production equipment is new, even to a TME pod machine. The roasting machine is by Trabatoni.

The company services something fewer than 1000 bar-cafe clients in Rome, a modest number by Italian standards. All of these are served directly on a regular basis by Vicere itself, along with cups, sugar, chocolate neapolitans, and such complementary drinks as coffee liquor, decaffeinated coffees, orzo (or barley) and chamomile tea.

Mostly, however, the space not used for green coffee storage, for processing, roasting, siloing, and packaging is devoted to the storage of the entire line of Vicere coffee products - which rather surprisingly completely covers the known range of coffee packaging formats: brick packs, valve packs, tins for gourmet blends, and the pods. Back in a separate corner are the towering shelves of complementary items.

Five themes are of particular note at Vicere (and can be said to also define the numerous roasting companies of distinction that Italy hosts): a commitment to covering market demand and staying abreast of new trends (Vicere has been producing pods since 1997 and this has steadily become an increasingly profitable part of the business); a dedication to continually investing back into the production program to keep it efficient and at the front line of coffee technology; a desire - sometimes thwarted by the reality of economics - to move upscale in product quality; a continuous focus on expanding the company’s small but surprisingly far flung export network; a distribution as well as a production mentality that is based on dispatching the goods regularly, quickly and without error. Some of these small roasting companies, like Vicere, are in fact marvels of distribution science - without even knowing it. They have merely incorporated the pragmatics and economics of distribution to their every day working way of life.

Perhaps this is why they find exports somewhat frustrating. Language barriers aside, a great difficulty for them is the ongoing search for honest and enthusiastic importers, brokers and distributors. Once a company like Vicere loses the complete control of the distribution process they become like fretful parents wondering where the children are.

In the case of Caffe Vicere, exports account for 10% of turnover, to France, Australia, Canada, Greece, Latvia and the U.S. Exports started in the U.S. four years ago. Just recently Caffe Vicere made its debut in the New York area. Some things do change slowly, and without doubt for the host of small Italian roasting companies, the American market remains their promised land.

In the case of the actual Vicere children, both quite young, at the moment they are very much in view as they play around and about the sacks of green coffee as naturally as other children would in a school playground. From the age of this next generation of coffee roasters, one can easily surmise that Vicere is, obviously, run by a young management team. Husband and wife, they are Wilma Vicere and her husband Carlo Arcaleni, who directs the day to day business operations and has himself worked with coffee since he was 10 years old.

According to Carlo, Romans like a long roast - his is a full 20 minutes. They relish a good ‘crema’ to their espresso - and Rome is virtually entirely espresso. Romans also favor a roast slightly darker than in the north of Italy, slightly lighter than in the far south. They like best a naturally sweet coffee blend, and have little taste for acidic or light bodied mixtures.

The Vicere blend normally incorporates six origins, while offering a 100% Arabica blend to follow the fashion of the moment, most of their roast contains varying amounts of Robusta coffees, although never more than 40% and generally they aim to reduce the Robusta percentage to around 20%, which brings them into the upper Roman market for espresso.

Outside, as another sunny Roman day begins to settle into the dust, the Vicere vans wait in a row, clean and ready for the next morning’s load of deliveries.

2. On Olympus with Olympia

Tucked away in the southern Swiss Alps, a few miles from the Italian border and something less than an hour by car from Milan, one finds the restoration in progress of one of the great old names in espresso equipment. Olympia.

Olympia was started in 1921 by an unusual man, Luigi Bresaola, who through a long career earned the respect of the espresso machine industry and too a sort of protective loyalty locally among his own skilled workers.

Bresaola and his company were unique from the beginning. First of all, Bresaola designed his espresso machines, inside and out, to be works of art, uniquely handsome and to brew with hand tooled, clockwork precision. Bresaola was something of a rebel too, which made for his fame and also, ultimately, for his financial difficulties.

He built the first series of professional espresso machines as we now know them, specializing with determination in design and first class construction. His espresso system trademark was ever the lever, to which the company is still faithful. His other trademark was quality, for which he consistently won awards. In the 1970s Olympia was truly on the Olympus of espresso, regarded by many professionals to be the finest espresso machine in the lever range.

To this day it is not uncommon to find Olympia machines still in fine working order more than 30 years after they rolled off the assembly line. But of course, all markets change. And Bresaola himself became one of the pioneers in making fully automatic/super automatic espresso brewing equipment.

Although expensive - perhaps the most expensive espresso machines of their time - and crafted for a service-free long life, Olympia flourished and after the launch of its commercial line produced a growing number of machines in its large factory in the Swiss town of Mendrisio.

Despite the change to a larger and more commercial production, Bresaola always kept his workers and refused to replace them by converting the production line into money-saving new technology. The fall of the dollar’s value in the early 1990s was therefore a true crisis for Olympia. Rather than fall from his mountain height, the elderly Bresaola sold his factory in 1992 - and not to another espresso company. It closed down production without debt and with protection for the workers. What remained of the original Olympia company passed to a holding company, Moka Espress.

Drastically downsized it then focused on servicing Olympia equipment and constructing a few high class household espresso machines. But the rebel spirit of Olympia endured and was reborn at Moka Express in 1996 under the determined direction of Marcus Fasnacht.

Fasnacht obviously both reveres Bresaola and the independent course he pursued in design and construction. He has kept the lever system and the stainless steel construction inside and outside. His market is the upscale household or office, or the first class restaurant or cafe where espresso is a culture and not a high volume commodity.

The company works leanly and concentrates on the U.S. and German markets. Last year it produced some 1200 small espresso machines - still hand made, still among the most expensive in the world. The machines are marketed principally through the internet and by a very select network of agents.

Fasnacht explains that Olympia exists again partly because it is the antithesis of the professional, commodity oriented, digital machine. It is not, however, a museum piece.

Another Olympia tradition that Fasnacht has made paramount is creativity. The company has recently launched its new small espresso maker, the Cremina, whose theme is simplicity. It is so simple in fact that in many cases should it malfunction - this in itself is apparently a rarity - it can often be repaired by its owner. This is supported by a 40 page booklet that comes with the Cremina, explaining not only how to use the machine to best advantage - with emphasis on temperature and on water and grinding quality - but also on self repairs and even the sources in the U.S. and Germany to go to directly should replacement parts be required. In addition, the company gives one-on-one on-line support to customers when they have a problem.

Apart from its elegant look, lever and stainless steel, the new machine features Teflon seals throughout and silicon gaskets.

Also now coming onto the market from Olympia is a new grinder using ceramic blades to attain the utmost degree in grind control and uniformity. A particular feature of the grinder is the lack of any doser reservoir. This purposefully requires that each dose be freshly ground and then tamped directly into the filter.

As Fasnacht explains it, the new Olympia has no buttons to press. It is working with real customers as individuals, with real coffee, with what he finds to be the best in espresso culture.

The heart and soul of Rome's Caffe Vicere, Wilma Vicere and Carlo Arcaleni. Carlo directs operations and has a lifetime of coffee experience.
3. A Costadoro to Remember

There might be as many 12 roasting companies in Italy with the name ‘Costadoro.’ They are not related. The name is popular. But the proliferation of Costadoros makes is difficult to grow beyond the traditional geographic confines of any given Costadoro distribution area. The Costadoro discussed here is based in Turin, in Italy’s northwest region. This means it can sell its product to bar and cafes throughout the Piedmont, although the large city of Turin is a major market by itself. The company has more than 1,200 HORECA clients in Turin alone.

The company can also sell through a few local agents in neighboring northern Liguria and the Val d’Aosta. This is not a small area yet nevertheless it is a confining one particularly so for a company more than a century old that harbors energy and ambitions.

Perhaps in part to give itself distinction among so many other coffees of the same name this Caffe Costadoro has chosen to position itself with high quality control standards - it has both the ISO 9002 certification as well as membership among the select group of regional Italian roasters that form the Grancaffe consortium for bar/coffee production. To barmen in Italy the ‘Grancaffe’ stamp is an imprimatur on a coffee’s quality control measures.

The quest for rating and qualification may also reflect the company’s pride in product. The House of Savoy may be long gone from its palace in Turin, but Caffe Costadoro never forgets that in times gone by, it was the provider of coffee to the royal court.

Caffe Costadoro keeps things simple. It commercializes only three basic blends; Master Club is its premium production. The brand is a 100% Arabica blend of several origins, highlighted by coffees from Guatemala, Costa Rica, Salvador and Kenya. The second product, Grancaffe Costadoro, follows the strictest formulations for roasting, a genuine Italian espresso of standing. It features a complex blend of numerous origins and a 10% topping of Robusta for adequate body and ‘crema.’ The company’s Costadoro Verde is its wakeup-call coffee; the strong and heady espresso that Italian workers traditionally like to knock back like a shot of whisky. With a 40% Robusta content to give it a bang, it comes in a blend of distinctive coffees from Central America, Brazil, Congo and India. Actually, this blend is now waning in popularity in Italy but finding special favor in Spain.

Caffe Costadoro buys its green coffees direct from origin, and is proud that it is buying 80% of its requirements in Arabicas - a high percentage in Italy. The company also stresses the way its handles and roasts the beans - the green coffee is cleaned on site. Roasting is for a long 20 minutes and each origin is roasted separately. Costadoro has developed a distinctively rein on roasting temperature, which must always be held within the range of 200 - 210°, or for a relatively cool roasting. The cooling process is achieved with air. The coffee is moved through the factory in bucket like conveyors, rather than pneumatically to reduce degradation.

The roasted coffee is checked again by a Sortex sorter before siloing, by origin, until blending is formatted by the computer controlled production system. The plant is a clever combination of equipment from a variety of sources, including two 300 kilo Probat batch roasters, Brambati and Sta handling, siloing and control systems, and a new Opem packaging line, among others. Costadoro packs in three and one kilo valve bags for bar/cafe usage, but also in 250 gram tins so that bars can sell take home Costadoro to enthusiastic customers.

As with most all roasters, Costadoro offers a complete service from espresso cup to grinder and espresso machine. Somewhat more unique is its emphasis on training, for sales agents, equipment service repair personnel and barmen themselves.

Costadoro has found the training program expensive and time consuming, but also rates it as indispensable in attaining the growth the company desires in Italy and abroad. As one member of the owning/managing Trombetta family puts it, “ There is no sense in our having invested so heavily in production technology and fine green coffees if the rest of the coffee service chain beyond packaging and delivery doesn’t know how to draw the best from the product.

“Upgrading service has slowed growth for us, but we see it as essential for the future. It explains why we have never lost a concessionaire. It also explains why our growth abroad is constant and real. We don’t ship a container one time only - we build regular export business.”

Costadoro also stresses that it sells the same roast, the same quality abroad as in Italy. Exports have in fact proven to be the company’s growth escape route, from the regional confines at home. More than 20% of its production leaves Italy, a quite high percentage among small to medium-sized roasteries.

Major export markets are France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, the U.S., Taiwan, and Eastern Europe. The company is now entering the Russian bar/cafe espresso market. Closer to home, it is proud to have become the best selling Italian espresso on the island of Corsica.

This is the third generation of Trombetta family members in management at Caffe Costadoro. When asked about what is most important in their success, one replies, “Size. We are not too small, not too big. We are flexible and despite all the backup technology we can still do what we like best - produce good handmade coffee.”

Tea & Coffee - September/October 2001


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