Friday, May 20, 2011

Rowland Coffee Roasters is Dead, Long Live J.M. Smucker Co.

Despite what you may have read in the Miami Herald, I've been drinking Cuban espresso since 1991, not 1997.  It was too complicated to go into.  My ex-wife worked at an office in Miami with a group of viejitas who refused to leave their desks but who insisted she make their cafecito each morning and afternoon.  She brought the stovetop coffee maker to Syracuse with her, along with bricks of Pilon.  I was already hooked on the stuff when I moved to Miami.

Becky told me I had it all wrong.  Bustelo, not Pilon.  Don't leave the grinds loose so the water shoots through it easily, tamp it down tight.  Don't eyeball the sugar and the first black spit-up of espresso for the espumita, measure it.  I was even using the wrong brewer.

Whatever, I had been brewing delicious Cuban coffee for a good eighteen years and I never heard any complaints.

"Listen," Becky said.  "Don't mess with my Cuban cofffee.  I'm Manny Q's daughter."

 Or words to that effect, which, if you knew Papa Q, would be saying something.

Of course she was right (being right is one of her strengths).  Her espresso was darker, richer.  Her espumita the perfect caramel color each time, without adjustments.  She served her shots with a good quarter-inch of creme across the top.  I drink my "American-style" coffee - as they call it in Miami - black and sugarless, but those little shots of sugary espresso goodness are something special.

Miami brewer Rowland Coffee owns the two most recognizable and successful of the local coffees - Pilon and Bustelo.  Really, they're like Coke and Pepsi.  Some people taste the difference, some don't, but those who do are fierce advocates of their choice.

Rowland's patriarch, Jose Angel "Pepe" Souto, died four years ago.  His sons just sold Rowland to Smucker's for $360 million.  In cash, for some reason.  Jose Enrique Souto, who co-ran the company with his brothers Jose Alberto and Angel, called it, "The all-American dream to start a little business, sell it to a big company, and then go enjoy life."  I suppose.  But it sounds like Pepe dreamed of coffee, and Pepe's sons dreamed of money.

Souto claims this deal honors his father's legacy - "The future of our brand is assured with this deal."  Rowlands made $115 million a year, but we all know that won't be enough for a corporation that makes $4.6 billion a year.  People who need "creative ideas" to justify their jobs will get in there and try to make something happen.  They will decide a red and yellow package design is too loud for a mass audience.  They will kill the charm.

But that's just speculation.  The reality is that part of this deal entails closing Miami's facilities and folding those operations into Folgers, putting 150 employees out of business.  This also affects local businesses whose services Rowland purchased - pest control, linen delivery, area eateries, etc.

Hundreds of people are blown out of the water so three dudes can roll around in $120 million each.  

Simon & Schuster wants to brand this chick lit, but I liked the hardcover cover better;
you should see the Norwegian cover.
I sounded off on Fabiola Santiago's Facebook post of the link above, so she asked me to elaborate in a side email.  She writes for the Miami Herald, and coffee and books are my passion, so this happened.

Talk about books for years and no one gives a hoot.  Talk about coffee one time, the world listens.

I guess we know what more folks are addicted to.

**UPDATE 4/7/13**

Did you know there's a TED talk on Cuban coffee as an intellectual property?

My post originally stated that "Miami brewer Rowland Coffee began in Cuba in 1865, and they own the two most recognizable and successful of the local coffees - Pilon and Bustelo."  I got this info from the Rowland Coffee website.  A reader graciously pointed out that this isn't the case (in fact, "Pepe" Souto's obituary mentions that they were primarily ranchers in Cuba before they lost their businesses to Castro).

Manuel Jesus Bascuas started the very popular Pilon in Cuba.  According to his daughter, this was in the early 1900s.

Rowland purchased Pilon in 1967.
(As far as Bustelo, Gregario Bustelo started making coffee in 1920s and Rowland bought them in 2000.)

We have Manuel Jesus Bascuas to thank for the packaging and flavor we know today.


  1. I just shared this link. Yeah, you are talking right up my alley here.


  2. Mine too. So sad to hear that.
    My favorite was when i was working at Kelly Tractor on NW 36th, and i could smell the coffee from across the street. Pilon (or may Bustelo, or La Llave) were there.

    I can get Bustelo up here in Seattle. I've been able to get it for just over two years.

    I also remember when I was working the cafe at Borders how i'd get the occasional lost cuban asking me for a cafesito. I miss that.

  3. Becky tells me she writes "cafesito" on Facebook posts so gringos read it correctly. If that's where you're coming from, rock on. If not, you've been in Seattle too long.

    In my mind it was Pilon you worked next to, but I could be wrong.

    When I worked at Starbucks, I'd tell people looking for Cuban coffee that our espresso was $2. They'd look at me like I was crazy, then leave.

  4. It is really sad that instead of honoring a Father these guys just sold out to the gringo's money, shameful - and the money always wins over values!

  5. Thanks for your addendum. One more little correction. My father, Manuel Jesus Bascuas, also owned Rowland Coffee Roasters. Rowland was my mother's maiden name. Pilon and Rowland Coffee Roasters were sold, I believe to Mr. Souto.

    The rights to this firm in Cuba are still my father's or the family now that he has died. The coffee, if and when it can happen, can not be sold in Cuba under any other Company's name. It is a Trade law. So .... we'll see what happens. I probably will not get to see it.

    But enough said. I just wanted to thank you. My father and grandfather were very hardworking and sacrificed greatly to create what they did. Thanks again for the opportunity of sharing this bit of Cuban history.

  6. Great article. Do you know the origin of the beans for the Bustelo and Pilon brands?

    1. Thanks, Raul!

      I don't know where the beans come from but coffee is very picky about where it's grown. Cuba's coffee-growing region is in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. If they're still claiming to be Cuban coffee, then it would have to be there.

  7. where did smuckers move the processing to?

  8. Folgers expanded their New Orleans processing plant in 2013 to accommodate the new additions. By the original deal, they were to start processing in NOLA in 2014. Seems like they stuck with that plan.