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Belgium's lady roasters.

In October, when she celebrated 10 years by herself as a coffee roaster and retailer, Arlette Plettincx threw a party, and just about everybody in coffee in Belgium came. This was a surprise because her roasting plant and store combined occupy no more than two narrow floors in an old building on the southside of Antwerp. But after you spend some time with Arlette, it isn't so strange that a small operation should draw a group of important coffee people--Arlette has that winning combination of honest strength and warmth that is naturally compelling. During the month of October, she also hosted a series of open-houses to further celebrate a decade in roasting. She counted a traffic of more than 5,000 visitors for the month. "They lined up down the block," she explained in wonder.

Given that even in the doldrums of a rainy Friday afternoon, her front bell kept ringing with a steady trail of buying clients, it can be seen that 10 years of hard work have brought a thriving trade to the small shop. Plettincx observes it wasn't so in the beginning. She had worked for the former proprietor for three years, watching as his profits declined. When she took the step to purchase the ailing business, Koffiebranderij Beukelaer, it was already suffering from a tarnished reputation and steady inroads from larger and more sophisticated competition. Now it is one of the most successful coffee and tea shops in Antwerp.

Plettincx attributes her success to many factors: finding and staying true to a very specific marketing tool and niche; offering a changing and interesting assortment of coffees, teas, spices and champagnes; maintaining an intimate first-name basis with her customers and learning what they like; working long hours six days a week, and even on Sunday afternoons; and doing everything by herself from coffee buying to roasting to selling and bookkeeping.

"I keep it a one-woman show," she says. "In peak seasons I have help in the shop, and before five o'-clock on weekdays I have retirees helping with the home delivery. Otherwise, I do it all, and that gives me a great deal of quality control."

At Cares Beukelaer the small coffee and tea storage and blending area is located below the shop with the roasting room in back. Part of the storage area has been set up for display and tastings, with educational posters on coffee production and usage. "The tours start here," she explains, referring to the fact that a mainstay of her business is now via the tour bus. On a regular weekly basis, she hosts bus loads of 50 people each, mostly Belgian day-trippers and quite often older people in clubs.

"I could never have guessed how many people want to touch green coffee and see how the roasting and blending is done. There's magic in even the humblest details of our business, if we know how to show and explain it."

The bus loads come to taste, to learn about coffee, perhaps to buy fresh coffee that they've just seen being roasted. Afterwards, Plettincx follows up with these visitors offering her program of home delivery by car of flesh-roasted coffee on a regular basis; it is this expansion in home-delivery that has paced her success.

After five o'clock, when the shop closes, she does the deliveries by herself, door to door. On Saturday, the shop is closed and she takes care of another specialty--weekend delivery of fresh coffee to seaside homes along the Belgian coast. On Sundays she has a change, catering champagne for receptions--mainly at castles and country estates (Arlette Plettincx is not only a master roaster, she is a Chevalier de Champagne).

Although she blends a number of personalized coffees, her shop and home delivery sales are based on a menu of 17 coffees-blends and single origins. The coffee list grows in time as each year she concocts a new Christmas blend, and if it's popular, adds it to her continuing production. This is quite a family-oriented brand range--she even has a coffee for first communion.

She buys green coffee only on her own cupping approval. She works on a 50-kilo batch machine, supplemented for very special roasts by an old 10-kilo model, which is a true working antique. She roasts at any time during the day, as demand dictates. If necessary, she leaves customers to wait upstairs while she completes a roasting. The coffees are whole bean but she grinds to order. Packaging is in simple, plain white metallized paper sacks which she labels individually. Plettincx is especially proud that, by blind taste trial, a panel of students from an Antwerp hotel school has recently selected her coffee over some more established 'gourmet' blends.

The store itself is simple but very pleasant. The Belle Epoque building speaks for itself--wooden floors, stained glass windows-but no attempt at all for a 'decor'. There are no heaps of contemporary accessories, no elaborate displays of any kind. She has a simple desk-like counter and uses nothing but huge old red coffee bins for decoration.

The business also does a good volume in classic and herbal teas. Her tea offering runs to 50 origins in bulk. These include a nice selection of first quality Ceylon, India and China teas. The line extends to aromatic and flavored teas, and teabags as well. Plettincx is also proud of being a particularly strong source for spices-- she offers customers an array of more than 500 spices.

Another customer has just rung the bell twice, outside, the signal for admittance. Plettincx welcomes in an elderly woman with a kiss, some quiet talk. Fresh coffee and rain in the air--the woman reminds Arlette that her home grinder is still broken.

Rom & Daughter

Maria Rom is a businesswoman first and foremost, from the way she successfully approaches the densely competitive Belgium horeca market to the management of her promotional activities through her two stores which, in fact, acts as cash and carry outlets for her restaurant/bar/care clientele.

Her company, Kofflebranderij Rom, is dedicated to the food service sector in a dynamic way that speaks loudly for her own innovative spirit. She competes for her clients as ardently as consumer product manufacturers do, and while she strives to give them their service economics it is always in a 'quality' frame. This is because she has aimed her company at the upper class of the Brussels' region foodservice market--a market and sector that serves an exacting coffee drinker and is the most difficult to please in Belgium and perhaps one of the more difficult in Europe. Rom coffees are served to government ministers and foreign dignitaries, in board rooms, at EC headquarters and in the finest restaurants in Brussels, one of the Continent's culinary capitals. That the coffees are also served at Belgium's (and Europe's) largest rock festivals indicates the zip that goes with Rom coffees.

Rom herself has studied the coffee business for the past 32 years; she'll tell she's still studying it. Her career began when, as a young girl, her parents took up the idea of becoming roasters. Actually, the Rom family were then farmers in the Leuven area of Belgium. But, in 1960, they decided to lay down the plow and take up coffee instead, and in a rather remarkably planned motion put themselves to learning all about green coffees and buying from what was then the Wuyts & Installe company in Antwerp (now EFICO), followed by an intensive coffee roasting course from the Belgian Probat agent. The Rom family set up roasting in Oud-Heverlee, a village close to the city of Leuven. The locale is still headquarters for Maria Rom, who has run the business by herself since 1986. She is now being assisted by her daughter, to keep the family tradition strong.

The setting is idyllic--comfortable homes on large wooded lots. Here, the Rom offices, stock and showrooms fill a handsome red brick, house-like structure that blends in perfectly with the scene. On entering, you come directly into a country store-styled sales room that gives the horeca buyer a full range of coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar and related accessories to choose from (an array of more than 70 cookies, for example). This is like a high class mini-convenience store for restaurant/bar/care clients. Behind are the offices and finished goods store rooms. Above are meeting rooms for promotional events.

The roasting/green coffee facility is in a separate structure to the rear. Here the Rom coffees are produced on a continuous basis, morning and afternoon roasting schedules, by the house roaster who is affectionately known as Leonke, or little Leon. Maria Rom still buys her green coffees on her own cup approval, and keeps active in the roasting by occasionally filling in for Leonke. The roast is light; "the beans do not sweat," explains Rom. She superintends blending, the house secret.

The leading house blend is from her own recipe--a mixture of what is known in Belgium as Moka and Dessert coffees. About 60% of the production is now in ground format, 40% whole bean (a high percentage for Belgium). Almost 80% of production is in the popular house blend, but the growth segment is very much in the company's espresso style roast. Maria Rom sees the quality segment of espresso offering particular potential in the near future.

In fact, as part of her promotions to upscale restaurants, she has recently initiated attractive espresso coffee menus. These menus are both educational promotions for coffee in general and, too, a sales tool for her own line of premium espresso products. The Rom espresso menu offers eight espressos: the classic dessert, moka, cappuccino and decaffeinated drinks, and Santos, Colombia, Costa Rica and 'Italiano' under a 'Grand Cru' banner.

As added service to the espresso bar sector, the company is the distributor for Wega espresso machines in the Brussels area. As well, Maria Rom herself has helped initiate production and distribution in Belgium of single service espresso coffee pods in paper filters. Although offered in regular and decaffeinated versions, the market emphasis has been on the decaffeinated product. These single service units fit the spectrum of espresso bar machines and are offered with a clear plastic dispensing system that highlights--and guarantees--their distinct regular or decaf nature. The pods are made by Afopack, a company in which Rom participates and which will be relocating to her factory site in the near future.

Mafia Rom also sells a good deal of tea, both in teabags and bulk. The teabag collection is by Brooke Bond, and is aimed at the bar/care sector. The bulk teas, provided by tea importer Van Alst in Antwerp, are primarily for the restaurant area. In sum, she carries a roster of more than 50 teas along with several herbal products. A pre-Christmas promotion by Rom involved a sturdy earthen teapot crowned by a wreath of classic and herbal teas in transparent sachets.

In addition to the site near Leuven, Rom maintains another store and Wega service center in Brussels. Both serve as depots for the daily distribution of coffee, tea and related products to clients throughout the Brussels region. In addition to the espresso machines, Rom distributes grinders and Bravilor drip machines.

Asked the usual male question, what is it like being a woman in a business dominated by men, Maria Rom answers with a sharp edge little smile. "Oh, in the beginning some of my competitors, all of whom are men, tried to make jokes about it. But you know, they haven't been laughing for years now."

Coffee in Belgium

Belgians consumed 56,571 tons of roasted coffee in 1991, down 3% from the 58,381 tons taken in 1990. The decline is not alarming in perspective of a troubled national coffee market that seemed to be chronically unstable in the decade of the 1980's (up one year, down the next). Actually, the 1991 consumption level remands at a Belgium is in the 'dessert' genre, 33% in 'moka,' More than 8% of the roasted coffee market is in decaffeinated products,

Belgium imported about 19,000 tons of roasted coffee in 1991, for a gain of approximately 6% from the level of imports in 1990, Exports of roasted coffee from Belgium also expanded, to nearly 38,500 tons, versus exports of 34,085 tons in 1990, Belgium continues to be of increasing importance as a roasting and trafficking center for coffee.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on coffee consumption in the country
Author:Bell, Jonathan
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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