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Italian update: notes on espresso coffee and machines.

Italian Update: Notes on espresso coffee & machines

To the likely dismay of art lovers, the map of Italy needn't be crowded with references to masterpieces. Instead, it can be given over to the many notable coffee roasters and espresso machine manufacturers who compete for international attention along with the best known names such as Lavazza, Cimbali, IllyCaffe and Faema. The notebooks from my travels in Italy reflect this, with entries that would amaze Bernard Berenson. When I am able to read my own notes, I amaze myself at what can be learned about espresso on even a short, hectic trip to the most fertile land of coffee. The following entries are representative.

KIMBO (Naples): The very special coffee family, the Rubinos, are now completing their most recent plant expansion. In essence they have added a second completely new and separate plant at Cafes do Brasil, adjacent to the original, continuing operation. The new production area is particularly interesting because of the imaginative use of space to gain the maximum in productivity, and the advent of a revolutionary roasting-packaging area concept.

Because the plant occupies what was previously a large warehouse area, the goal was to fit as many packaging lines as possible into a given space. This has been achieved by going vertical with the conveyor lines; the air is thick with parading packages of coffees and gives the visual impression of looking up at the Los Angeles freeways in rush hour. The new plant features the latest technology in roasting and packaging machinery, plus case-loading robots. But it is the overall plant concept that is most intriguing. The Rubinos are in process of enclosing the total production cycle, through all stages, and most particularly in packaging. When completed the coffee produced here will never come in contact with oxygen, [CO.sub.2] only, from the time the green coffee goes to roasting until the packages is opened by the consumer. The entire packaging operation will be sealed tightly. This is believed to be the first coffee plant of its kind - like a giant vacuum packed coffee package unto itself - and with total process and on-line controls built in.

This plant, which can be termed 'Kimbo II' increases Cafes do Brasil production capacity by 66%. This is obviously warranted, given the company's record of growth. In the May-June period of this year, Kimbo achieved a 13% share of the Italian home coffee market, ranking it second in sales. Abroad, Kimbo sales in the U.S. have tripled thus far over the level in 1989. In addition to the U.S., Kimbo is now selling in Canada, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, France and Spain.

ELEKTRA (Traviso): If Elektra made its espresso machines for the Italian market only, it would be a very small company because 95% of its sales are outside of Italy. Yet this is not the only reason for the company's uniqueness among Italian espresso machine manufacturers. Elektras are the 'designer' segment of the Italian espresso machine market, distinct for their elegance and the class of their fittings - brass and copper.

The company produces 57 different models for home and professional use, ranging from classic lever machines up to the most advanced concepts in semi-automatic and toally electronic systems. But more than 50% of its sales are in the line of opulent, visually stunning Belle Epoque machines - machines that are as delightful to look at as to drink from. These gleaming, domed, cylindrical extravangazas, for home and bar, have given Elektra its reputation from Milan to New York. The machines were designed by Florindo Fregnan, whose family owns Elektra. His son, Federico is now managing director.

Federico is proud of his machines, and not only for their beauty. More than once, the company has introduced an espresso machine innovation at the annual autumn fair in Milan, including the first fully automatic machine. "We have made unique solutions to technology as well as to styling," he explains. This autumn, in Milan, the company is unveiling its `Cappucinatori' system for instant, automatic cappucino preparation. The Cappucinatori is a patented, brass fixture.

Almost 70% of Elektra sales are in North America, explaining why there are company offices in Montreal and New York.

BONOMI (Binasco): For now, there is too much to write about this coffee roster, located but a few miles outside Milan. More to come, surely. But the important point is that here one finds a smallish-sized company that has made the difficult but all-important move from 'regional' roaster to 'specialty' roaster. This change of being is still rare in Italy, but the mode must come if this dimension in roasting is to survive here.

Bonomi serves a specialized, urban, sophisticated bar and home market - distinctly upscale in quality - and thrives too on ideas. One very recent idea, the product is just being launched in the Milan market region, is a happy tent-shaped tin of individual vacuum-packed espresso sachets for single service - or service for 'singles' if you wish. Inside each tin there are 20 packets, 6.25 gm each, of 100% Arabica coffee. The servings are for use in home espresso and moka machines.

CIMBALI (Binasco): Located just on the other side of the same small Lombard town is the Cimbali factory. Here more than 15,000 professional espresso machines are produced each year, and most of them for far away bars and cafes.

Cimbali machines are imported in 80 nations, through 160 importers. The machines are in use from the Kremlin to EC Headquarters in Brussels and from the Hyatt Hotel in Jakarta to the UN in New York. Undoubtedly, the company has built a unique global sales network for an espresso machine and as a result is becoming a status label of sorts as 'espresso' continues to enjoy growth among fashionable folk. This was reflected recently when VM International, the Swiss marketing magazine, carried a front cover that included 'La Cimbali' in a display of trendy labels such as Lacoste, Vichy and Giorgio Armani. Let it be said here, that this sort of modish recognition is sorely needed by the coffee industry in general. If espresso, led by certain sector leaders, is putting coffee back into style, then we all have something to cheer for, and pursue.

Cimbali's emphasis on the international market becomes quite visible each summer during the Cimbali European Trophy. This is a non-competitive event that the company holds in Italy and which draws teams of hotel-school students from various European nations. The student finalists for these teams recreate authentic, elegant coffee services representative of their own culture. This year's event featured teams from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Christian Smets is the new export manager at Cimbali; he is based in Binasco and reports directly to commercial director Daniele Bert. Smets has been with Cimbali for four years, and for the past two years has represented the company in Japan.

LAVAZZA (Turin): As the leading espresso marketer in Italy and the world, Lavazza remains very much the source for following the international espresso phenomenon. By rank, the company's leading export markets are now France - where Lavazza has significant national presence - Germany, the UK and US markets (about even in volume now) and Australia. In Germany, Lavazza has achieved national distribution and holds more than 50% of the espresso market, a small but dynamic segment (1% of total coffee market). But the company is present in numerous other markets, and reports particular interest at the moment from the Far East and among worldwide hotel chains.

In sum, Lavazza has gained a worldwide experience in espresso marketing during the 1980s. Its most recent and perhaps boldest initiative has been in the U.S., where a subsidiary was formed in 1988. The company describes the U.S. business as 'steady' growth, not fast. But Lavazza also characterizes its U.S. viewpoint as decidedly optimistic, if cautious. Foremost, the company has actually restricted growth in order to maintain a high level of product quality and backup service in order to support the introduction and wider acceptance of what many Italians term the 'true' espresso concept. According to a company spokesman, the goal has been to establish a quality-oriented niche for Lavazza products, avoiding quick growth and the long term mistake of opting for a fast buck.

As a result, Lavazza home market brands are available through major retailers only in the New York metro area, upstate New York, Boston, Baltimore and Chicago areas. The product families include Milano Roast and Espresso Italia, also available in decaffeinated versions. The coffees are sold in tins, vacuum brick packs, double packs and in small trial brick packs of 57 gms. The products are reported to be reaching a market presence of about 50% in the target regions. Lavazza has positioned itself in the premium sector, with extensive point-of-sale marketing support. The campaign is aimed at enlarging espresso use beyond traditional ethnic circles. The best selling Lavazza home products is Espresso Italia tin. For the special store shelf, Lavazza offers the well known gold label tin.

Currently, Lavazza has roughly equal U.S. home and bar sales. Its U.S. bar sales are in the same target areas as for the home products, but also include the Pacific Coast region. About 80% of Lavazza bar sales area of its Super Creme line. A new bar product is 'Top Class,' a decaffeinated whole bean roast in a one kilo valve bag.

When it comes to U.S. espresso bar marketing, all roasters and machine manufacturers have a common challenge - the lack of training of bar personnel, the high turnover in personnel, the tradition and mentality of speed-above-all that distinguishes most U.S. food/beverage services. The leading machine manufacturers have various, successful answers to this particularly of the U.S. market - espresso machines that anyone with a finger can operate. Lavazza too is now launching its own entry - Lavazza Espresso Point.

The Espresso Point system has already proved successful in the Italian office service sector. Point is a small, relatively inexpensive and seductively simple machine designed for small service bars and offices. It makes espresso from vacuum packaged plastic Lavazza coffee capsule in the Point machine and then pops a coffee capsule, two doses per capsule. One places a cup under the spout below; immediate espresso as short or long as desired-to stop the flow of coffee just remove the cup. A short espresso is ready in less than 30 seconds-every cup is delivered at same temperature and speed, and with same portion and blend. For Lavazza this is not espresso art, nevertheless it does give the company a means of offering a quick reliable cup of espresso to an even larger audience of potential, long term clients.

PHOTO : The new, second Kimbo plant, immediately adjacent to the original, is a marvel of roasting, packaging and handling technology-robots included as shown here. But the plant's most unique attribute is the program to completely seal production and packaging from contact with air.

PHOTO : An Elektra Belle Epoque model in a black and white photograph! Impossible! Missing here is the glory of gleaming brass and copper.

PHOTO : In praise of fine espresso, at the Cimbali European Trophy event this past summer, teams of hotel-school students gathered from various nations. Here in a moment of relaxation, an Italian participant graciously served by a Dutch participant.
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Author:Bell, Jonathan
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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