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Cuban Coffee Brand May Pour Into Mainstream

Smucker's purchased Cafe Bustelo for $360 million in May.
Smucker's purchased Cafe Bustelo for $360 million in May.

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.

Sugar is whisked with a little coffee to create <em>espumita</em>, the frothy trademark element of Cuban coffee.
Kenny Malone / WLRN
Sugar is whisked with a little coffee to create <em>espumita</em>, the frothy trademark element of Cuban coffee.

"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.

(From left): Maria Torres and Maria Menendez drink Cuban coffee in Miami. Both are nurse practitioners at the San Juan  Bosco Clinic.
Kenny Malone / WLRN
(From left): Maria Torres and Maria Menendez drink Cuban coffee in Miami. Both are nurse practitioners at the San Juan Bosco Clinic.

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.

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