Vice president of sales and marketing, Rowland coffee roasters

Jose Enrique Souto: vice president of sales and marketing, Rowland coffee roasters

Kerri Allen

Imagine a world without coffee. Worse yet, imagine a world with only decaf. As long as the Souto family has something to say about it, neither cataclysmic event will take place in the United States.

Since its founding in Cuba in 1865, Rowland Coffee Roasters has been a family-run operation. “Coffee, for Cubans, is a very, very strong part of your daily life,” says Jose Enrique Souto, vice president of sales and marketing. The Miami-based company owns 80 percent of the market share for espresso beans as well as some of the most popular Latino coffee brands in the United States: Bustelo, Pilon, Medaglia D’Oro, Caffe’ Signore, E1 Pico, Estrella, Ideal, Oquendo and the family’s very own label, Souto.

Patriarch and owner, Jose A. “Pepe” Souto, 90, still comes into the company’s south Florida office a few days a week, but Rowland is essentially overseen by his three sons: Jose Enrique, Jose Alberto and Angel. Enrique, the eldest, vividly recalls the humble beginnings of this coffee powerhouse.

“I was about 15 or 16 when I started helping my father over the weekend and after school, delivering coffee. It was small-a real family business.” While Pepe was roasting coffee, Enrique and his mother were selling the beans door-to-door. “This was like ‘Avon calling’,'” Enrique says. “It was the type of situation where families who were coming to Miami [from Cuba] knew each other. They knew us as coffee people, so they bought the coffee from us. It helped support my family.”

The company’s income enabled Enrique to graduate from business school at the University of Miami. After a short stint in the retail clothing business, he came back to the bean. His two younger brothers completed their studies shortly thereafter and the trio took the reigns at Rowland Coffee.

Cage Pilon had been owned by Tetley and, according to Souto, was probably the largest Hispanic coffee owner in the U.S. about 15 years ago. “Pilon was familiar. For Cubans, it was Cuban coffee. For Americans, it was espresso coffee.” In the 1990s, Tetley approached Rowland to buy their coffee division. “We jumped at it. It was a very highly-leveraged buy, and the small guy bought the big guy!” The sale was finalized in February 2000. Rowland maintained its commitment to Hispanic coffee and its main buyers. Wee fe It that Cuba would open up and we wanted to be ready to do business in the old country.”

Although Enrique and his family have been in Florida since the 1960s-and their island home hasn’t “opened up”-their love of Cuba has never dwindled. “We have a strong Cuban heritage that we have passed along to our sons and daughters. We are proud to say that we are Americans, but we still have celebrations like we did back in Cuba, like el “dia de los tres magos” and “nochebuena”; things

we grew up with.” Meanwhile, Rowland Coffee is trying to inculcate the new Latino generation with some new traditions, including a love for the company’s Cubano-Euro cafes. In January, Rowland’s first store, Bustelo Cafe, opened at Florida International University. “It’s a blend of old Cuba with a European look,” says Enrique. The cage serves hot and iced coffees, Cuban sandwiches and Euro-style treats. “It was received with open arms by the students at FIU.” Rowland plans to open a dozen more Bustelo Cages at various Florida universities.

The company is also looking into expanding its sales of espresso pods (preground, pre-measured, and pre-tamped: coffee wrapped in filter paper). Souto admits “they haven’t been as popular, but we have been selling pods and we felt that the business was developing.” Just this month, Rowland’s pods hit a few stores in south Florida.

But in spite of all of their success, does Rowland Coffee fear Starbucks, the giant of all U.S. coffees? “Back in 1985, I met one of the original owners,” Souto recalls. “He came to our factory to see the Italian operation.” The companies weren’t, and still aren’t, competitors. “What they have done for the coffee industry is marvelous,” he says. “They created a new following of people. They took the coffee business that was in decline in the U.S. and revived it. On the other hand, on our side of the business, we had a niche. Our business was growing.” Starbucks’ success has only helped Rowland Coffee.

As an increasing number of Americans come to savor the taste of strong brews, more are discovering Bustelo, Pilon and E1 Pico in the supermarket or comer bodega. The Souto family is ready for the next big boom, and there is no doubt they’ll be wide-awake when that morning dawns.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Ferraez Publications of America Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group