Cuban Coffee Brand May Pour Into Mainstream

Originally published on October 17, 2017 1:28 pm

The J.M. Smucker Company claims its food empire started with apple butter squeezed straight from apples planted by Johnny Appleseed. But the newest addition to that empire might not exactly fit in with the company lore.

Smucker's bought up the Rowland Coffee Roasters in May, and with it came Cafe Bustelo — an iconic Miami brand of Cuban coffee. The acquisition could mean more coffee in more places as the Cuban-American population continues to expand nationwide.

Sipped by Cuban Exiles for 50 Years

Chemically speaking, Cuban coffee looks, smells and brews pretty much like Italian espresso. But culturally, Miamians talk about coffee like people talk about Cuban cigars.

"Usually when I go out to dinner I'll have a cafecito," says Andy Gomez, one devotee. "But while I was in Cuba I would have three or four of them a day — I became addicted to it."

Gomez is a senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. He came from Cuba to the U.S. as a six-year-old in 1961. It was the year of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the same year one homesick Cuban exile in Miami started selling coffee door-to-door to other homesick Cuban exiles.

It was the early beginning of a company that would end up selling Cafe Bustelo.

"That individual, that company and that brand — it represents a start of the Cuban-American experience in exile," he says. "That's why I say the brand might change, because it has been sold to a larger entity, but the spirit won't ever disappear."

Messing With Perfection?

But not everyone is as excited about the sale as Gomez; there's a looming concern that Smucker's might mess with perfection, or that the brand might get swallowed up entirely.

Joe Magyer writes about Smucker's for the Motley Fool — a Virginia-based financial services company.

"I mean, Smucker's is a $9 billion company, they're paying $360 million for this?" Magyer says.

From a business standpoint, he says Cuban coffee should blend smoothly into Smucker's breakfast mix — especially since the company bought Folgers Coffee three years ago.

But Smucker's paid ten times for Folgers what it did for Bustelo and a few other brands that came along in the deal.

"And down the road, if you're a fan of these brands, that might mean that maybe they don't get as much love from Smucker's as you'd like," Mayger says. "But big picture I'd say, at least in the near-term, you're going to be happier as a consumer because you'll be able to find these things in more places."

More Cuban-Americans, More Coffee

And that's more important now than ever. The 2010 Census shows that the Cuban-American population rose in every state over the last decade. Some of the fastest growing communities are in North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky — all relatively close to Smucker's headquarters in Orrville, Ohio.

Maribeth Badertscher is a spokeswoman for Smucker's. She says Bustelo is the first major Hispanic brand the company has purchased. It's part of a major effort to bring Hispanic consumers to the table, and has involved some education for the company.

"We already have a team at the plant and with the marketing offices, and our teams have also spent a great deal of time with consumers in Miami in their homes and watching how they use and enjoy those products," Badertscher says.

Smucker's could have learned a thing or two at the San Juan Bosco Clinic where Maria Menendez and Maria Torres both work as nurse practitioners but act as in-house Cuban coffee experts.

Menendez clinked a carafe in the kitchen and called out for some sugar, "'Cause we need to make 'espumita,'" she says. Espumita is a thick, sugary foam that's the trademark of Cuban coffee. Torres chimes in with a Cuban saying about the drink: "'Ya aprendiste hacer cafe, ya te puedes casar.'"

It means, "If you knew how to make coffee, you could get married already." And maybe that's the message for Smucker's — take care of the brand, take care of the product, and adding Bustelo to the Smucker's family won't be a problem.

Copyright 2017 WLRN 91.3FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3FM.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: From member station WLRN in Miami, Kenny Malone has this report.

KENNY MALONE: Chemically speaking, Cuban coffee looks and smells and brews pretty much like Italian espresso. But culturally, Miamians talk about coffee the way people talk about Cuban cigars.

ANDY GOMEZ: Usually, when I go out to dinner, I'll have a cafecito. But while I was in Cuba, I would have three or four of them a day. I became addicted to it.

MALONE: Andy Gomez is a senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban- American Studies at the University of Miami. He came from Cuba to the U.S. as a six-year-old in 1961, the same year as the Bay of Pigs invasion. And also the same year one homesick Cuban exile started selling coffee door-to-door to other homesick Cuban exiles, the early beginning of a company that would end up selling Cafe Bustelo.

GOMEZ: That individual, that company and that brand, it represents a start of the Cuban-American experience in exile. That's why I say the brand might change, because it has been sold to a larger entity, but the spirit won't ever disappear.

MALONE: Not everyone's as excited about the sale as Gomez. There's a looming concern that Smucker's might mess with perfection, or that the brand might get swallowed up entirely.

JOE MAGYER: I mean, Smucker's is a $9 billion company. They're paying $360 million for this?

MALONE: Joe Magyer writes about Smucker's for the Motley Fool, a Virginia-based financial services company. From a business standpoint, he says Cuban coffee should blend smoothly into Smucker's breakfast mix, especially since the company bought Folgers Coffee three years ago. But Smucker's paid 10 times for Folgers what it did for Bustelo, plus a few other brands that came along in the deal.

MAGYER: And down the road, if you're a fan of these brands, that might mean that maybe they don't get as much love from Smucker's as you'd like. But big picture I'd say, at least in the near term, you're going to be happier as a consumer because you'll be able to find these things in more places.

MALONE: Maribeth Badertscher is a spokeswoman for Smucker's. She says Bustelo is the first major Hispanic brand the company has purchased as part of a major effort to bring Hispanic consumers to the table. And that's involved some education for Smucker's.

MARIBETH BADERTSCHER: We already have a team at the plant and with the marketing offices. And our teams have also spent a great deal of time with consumers in Miami in their homes and watching how they use and enjoy those products.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING SOUND)

MALONE: Smucker's could have learned a thing or two at the San Juan Bosco Clinic.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

MARIA TORRES: Hello.

MARIA MENENDEZ: Hello.

TORRES: Oh, you look so much older now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MALONE: That's my beard. You want to make some coffee?

MENENDEZ: Yes. Let's do it.

MALONE: I worked here when I first moved to Miami, and learned quickly from the two nurse practitioners, Maria Menendez and Maria Torres - Torres is the loud one - that life and Cuban coffee are intrinsically linked.

MENENDEZ: Get some sugar, because we need to make espumita.

TORRES: And then you get that big, thick, beautiful foam.

MENENDEZ: But we use - you know, they say that once ya aprendiste hacer cafe, ya te puedes casar. That's a Cuban saying.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MALONE: Why do they say that?

MENENDEZ: I don't know. It was just a saying: If you knew how to make coffee, you could get married already.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MALONE: For NPR News, I'm Kenny Malone in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.