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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mr. Espresso Stays True to Itself, but Doesn't Fear Trends

Posted By on Thu, Nov 10, 2011 at 10:03 AM

click to enlarge NATHAN Y

In an effort to chart the ever-expanding specialty coffee scene in the Bay Area, we've been engaging a selection of local coffee personalities to pick their brains about why coffee and why now. Today we talk to Luigi and John DiRuocco, sons of Carlos DiRuocco, founder and CEO of Mr. Espresso.

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Mr. Espresso has been operating out of Oakland as a major Bay Area roaster since 1978, how have you managed to stay relevant?

Luigi DiRuocco: We're an established business with established priorities, and it is hard to just go around and try to be different all the time. We stay true to ourselves and make changes in a careful manner. We have to be loyal to our customers that we currently have.

It's easier to start a business with what's going on in the business right now, you just address the current trends and you're already doing exactly what the customer wants. If you're already an established business, though, you have to take in to account your employees, your current level of sales, your current customers. It's a lot more responsibility.

John DiRuocco: We've been around a little bit longer than some of these new guys. We're trying to stay true to ourselves, not to the fads. If people are pushing the envelope, we're looking to learn from other people, to see what we can do better. I always tell people, 14 years ago, customers complained that our coffee was too light. Where are those people now?

How does the appearance of so many new, trend-setting roaster-retailers like Sightglass and Verve affect you guys?

LDR: It makes us constantly improve, but it also highlights how important is for us to play our part in the marketplace as a larger roaster. We have the opportunity to have access to a greater amount of accounts, and we are constantly working to improve the baseline of quality in these accounts. We see that as a major function of what we do. We have a lot of accounts from before the advent of the third wave of coffee that we have to help move forward. They don't always want to move forward -- they want things to stay the same. We're trying to help. We see ourselves as the helping the whole mass of the industry moving forward.

JDR: We see ourselves, in terms of our higher end coffees, as up to standard with the Blue Bottles and the Four Barrels. Admittedly not all of our coffee is up to that level. I don't think people always want to drink super bright, acidic, coffees. Sometimes they just want a good cup of coffee. If you take a beautiful Ethiopian coffee and put cream and sugar in, it's gone. We want to match up with the top roasters on the high end, but also serve a cup of coffee people can put milk and sugar in and still taste the coffee.

How does your decision to feature single-origin beans fit in to that goal of moving the industry forward?

LDR: We've always done single origins, it just hasn't been the same market. We had the, but people were buying blends back then. Even when I first started at Mr. Espresso, it was all blends. Single origins have always been around, but there's a new awareness about them. As with everything right now, the quality is being improved, but not by a remarkable threshold.

You've both been in coffee for over a decade. I wonder what you think the current trends are and your opinions on those trends?

LDR: In the hands of a roaster-retailer, the customer is drinking exactly what the roaster has to offer. In the past people would say, "I want to serve a ristretto espresso, but my customer won't drink that. It's not enough coffee. My customers are too American." Roaster-retailers finally said, well screw this, I'm going to serve that to the customer and they're going to like it. And they did, and they proved that the business model worked. But I think there will be a retreat from this whole idea of education. I think people will just want a cup of coffee and not this whole experience.

JDR: People are pushing the envelope for quality these days. You have that trend towards bright, fruity, acidic coffee, but, honestly I think people might step back and say, "I'm tired of this." People are going to want nuttier coffee that's still light roasted but broadens the horizon away from this current trend of super bright.

Don't get me wrong. We're not averse to trends, we're just cautious about trends.

How does this current iteration of the Bay Area coffee scene match up with what's come before?

JDR: It's exploding. Everytime you go online there's a new coffee out there. It's exciting, but as competitor, it's a little bit scary.

LDR: Back in the day the industry thrived more on competition in a business manner. Now it's thriving on competition in a community way. Everyone is trying to make each other better. For the greater good.

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Noah Sanders

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