You may not know it, but it’s the coffee you drink at the Cheese Board, as well as Café Rouge, Saul’s Deli, Oliveto, Sweet Adeline Bakery, Picante, Lalime’s, Dopo, À Côte, Bette’s Ocean View Diner — and many other highly regarded and much loved Bay Area restaurants. It’s the coffee made by the Oakland-based Mr. Espresso.
I’m touring the Mr. Espresso factory in the hopes of understanding how this company, one of the oldest in the business, has managed to stay so successful while remaining relatively under the radar. Their oak-roasted beans are perhaps less attention-grabbing than their local third-wave counterparts like Blue Bottle, Bicycle and Flying Goat, but, unlike most Bay Area coffee start-ups, their coffee has roots.
The first thing Luigi DiRuocco, the vice-president of Mr. Espresso, says to me as I walk into the Mr. Espresso showroom is “Would you like some coffee?” It’s 2 p.m. — far later in the day than I, generally a non-coffee drinker, normally sip caffeine. We’re standing in a room filled with a playground of espresso machines, some new and practical like top-of-the line Faemas, and others decidedly less so: in one corner stands a giant Rube Goldberg-like gizmo that doesn’t make coffee, but it sure has its share of whirly-gigs, levers, and pulleys.
Perhaps I’m not the best person to take this tour, I thought as I acquiesced, sipping on a single shot of Mr. Espresso’s Neapolitan blend. I don’t know much about what I’m drinking, and I’m worried I’ll be too jittery to take legible notes. Luigi urges me to stir a bit of sugar into my cup, and once again I say yes.
The final sip is richer, sweeter, and ultimately subtler than I’m used to; it is far from the light, fruity roasts served at Four Barrel, Ritual, or Sightglass. This is the kind of roast, Luigi explains, that fits into the fast-paced, Italian “social” idea of coffee. You can, he says, drink it quickly and drink it all day long. Indeed, as his father Carlo, the founder of Mr. Espresso, adds as he wanders in to make himself a drink, Italians used to consume “five to 10 espressos a day. Now it’s more like 3 to 5.” Still, that’s a lot of coffee.
Carlo founded Mr. Espresso in 1978 out of his garage in Alameda. He had moved his family to the States from Europe a few years earlier and found work repairing elevators for Otis. His brother, Franco, was also living in the East Bay, running the popular restaurant, Villanova. Franco wanted to serve Italian coffee in his restaurant, and asked Carlo to help him import an espresso machine.
This being the 1970s, there wasn’t much of a coffee culture; most Americans got their daily cups from office percolators, but the brothers both wanted to drink and serve the quality espresso with which they were familiar. Carlo found Franco a machine and used his technical skills to get it in tip-top shape for the restaurant. Soon after that, other restaurants, like Caffe Mediterraneum (The Med) in Berkeley began requesting machines as well. Given the growing demand, Carlo was able to quit the elevator work and move exclusively into espresso machine imports.
Along the way, he began to roast his own beans to serve in the machine showroom. These he roasted over oak wood, just as he had learned as a kid back in Salerno, Italy, his hometown. These demo beans were popular enough that Carlo started selling them to customers. From then on, Mr. Espresso has been a full-service company, providing both the coffee and the machines with which to serve it.
Carlo’s success didn’t seem as inevitable as it does today.
“The prospect of selling machines was kind of a weird one. It was risky, some might say a little crazy,” said Luigi. “The only people drinking espresso were the Europeans or the people that had traveled to Europe, the people living in North Beach, and the people who were a little more open minded.”
As time has marched on, many of Carlo’s old machines have made their way back to the Mr. Espresso warehouse. Until recently, these antiques had been sitting in storage. Luigi urged his father to bring them back out and put them on display. The result is a mini-museum of classic machines, from the first few sold to The Med to a several contraptions that don’t look like they could possibly serve coffee. Whatever the practical nature of the collection, it gives the warehouse character and grounds the company’s history.
Today, Carlo still sits at the helm of Mr. Espresso, but his children John, Laura, and Luigi run much of the operation. Marie-Françoise, their mother, is the CFO. Given the range of experience and interest of the family members, Mr. Espresso exists on a spectrum from the traditional to the modern. On one end, Mr. Espresso imports and uses only Italian machines, equipment, and coffee bags.
“When my dad was starting it was a symbol of quality, and it was also cheaper, to import from Italy rather than to buy equipment here,” said Luigi. “But now I think it’s cool to have all Italian equipment. I like to say that we make the finest Italian espresso anywhere — and we’re doing it in Oakland.”
At the other end of the spectrum lies Luigi’s pet project, Coffee Bar. Started in 2007, the mini-chain of three San Francisco coffee shops has the look of any sleek new Valencia street caffeine shrine. He started the coffee shops in order to introduce new customers to Mr. Espresso.
“Our biggest contact was with the wholesale market, so we mostly had other businesses selling our coffee.” Plus, Luigi says, “at that time there were other roasters opening up with cafés to sell their coffee. I wanted to have us sell our own coffee in a more modern context so that we could have a place in that world.”
Despite this expansion into new territory, the heart of Mr. Espresso coffee is their gigantic, bright red oak wood roaster. Carlo has stepped back from manning the fiery roaster, handing the reins to Luigi’s older brother, John. Their general roasting method hasn’t changed too much over the years, but the company has been working hard to improve their consistency from batch to batch.
“A lot of people think that it must be really hard to maintain any consistency with wood, and it is challenging, but we’ve gotten really good at tracking our roasting processes,” says Luigi. “We aren’t just throwing wood in there.”
The hardest part? “It’s really easy to raise the temperature of the roaster — you just close the door. But it’s hard to cool it down. It’s like steering a big boat,” said Luigi.
To help maintain consistency, John set up a computer program to track the inputs and outputs of every roast. The screen looks like a vast, indecipherable map of numbers and charts, but for the company, it’s been a game-changer. Luigi clearly admires the work John has done. “He doesn’t like to be called this, but he’s kind of the ‘roast master.’ ”
John is quietly at work as we walk towards the roaster. He opens the gate of the drum and lets out a river of steaming hot beans, which fall into the cooling tray. The rich, toasty scent of the beans envelopes the space. I try to pick out evidence of wood smoke in the cooling beans, but Luigi explains that the scent isn’t what sets their coffee apart. “Roasting with wood is all about the quality of the heat. There is moisture in the wood that is released when it is burned that keeps the temperature of the beans cooler, making them roast slower,” he says. “This is ideal for Italian espresso blend because it reduces acidity in the beans, develops body, and enhances the sweetness.”
After the beans have cooled, they’re placed in large bins to cure. Later, the beans are mixed together into one of nineteen blends or else packaged and labeled as single origin beans. They source their beans from all over the world, and some, but not all, of these coffees are organic and fair trade. Mr. Espresso sourced their first organic beans for Chez Panisse in 1999.
“When they started requiring that all of their coffee had to be fair trade and organic, we did that for them, and then started to do it for others as well,” said Luigi. “But we don’t think that it is necessarily the magic bullet.” As he explains, they like the fact that fair trade coffee carries with it a third-party certification for bean quality and responsible growing practices. “But we don’t think that it should all be one way or the other. Even with non-certified growers, we try to form some kind of relationship.”
We move past the roaster to take a look at the packaging station. The biggest change Mr. Espresso has made in the last few years has been to re-brand their logo and coffee bags. Their previous coffee bags were white and came tagged with a large Italian flag and a cute cartoon character with a head shaped like a coffee bean (an artistic rendering of an anonymous “Mr. Espresso,” if you will).
“It was charming, cute, and whatnot,” said Luigi. “Plus back then there was a strong association between Italian and quality. Today the Italian flag indicates something that might be a little more hokey.” In addition, Luigi says, the old logo “wasn’t communicating anything about our story. It didn’t show that we were a family business, that we were progressive, that we were high-quality, that we do single-origin, or anything about our history.”
So Luigi and John went through a series of design ideas. At one point, they were considering a minimal logo that looked much more like a bag of Four Barrel or Stumptown than Italian coffee, but were worried that this drastic change would alienate customers. Instead, they landed on a compromise between the old and the new. The bag now comes with neutral grey and green text and a large black-and-white image of a 20-something Carlo riding a Vespa to a party in Italy.
“It captures something original,” said Luigi. It’s more contemporary, like a retro modern mix of old and new.”
He hopes that this re-branding will continue to carry the company into the future. “We should have looked like this a long time ago. We want to balance the future and past. And we’ve always done this internally, so now we want to project this with our branding. We want people to know that we’re all about Mr. Espresso the real human being.”
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.
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