Q&A;: Leonor Gaviña-Valls

Leonor Gaviña-Valls has brewed her family's coffee blends for decades, but in recent years she has grown accustomed to buying them at area stores and restaurants.

The Glendale resident is co-owner of Gaviña & Sons, which produces popular retail brand Don Francisco's Gourmet Coffee, as well as private-label coffees sold at stores like McDonald's, 7-Eleven, Costco and Porto's Bakery.

The company, which traces its roots to Cuba, has rapidly expanded in recent years, upgrading its production space from 80,000 square feet to 240,000 square feet in 2002.

Its new plant in Vernon handles about 40 million pounds of imported coffee beans a year, funneling them through a complex system of roasters and packing machines that show a dramatic evolution from the original 2,000-square-foot Gaviña operation of 1967.

Although the recession has slowed down business — the company's revenues still grew by more than 5% in 2009 — Gaviña-Valls discussed the popularity of coffee as a part of Americans' daily routines, which is something the company doesn't anticipate will change because of spending habits.

ZAIN SHAUK: How has the business changed since your family began in the United States 43 years ago?

LEONOR GAVIÑA-VALLS: We started back in 1967, my dad, my mom, my brothers. I was still in high school, and our coffee was only espresso . . . When we started saying "espresso," or saying "latte" or a "cappuccino," nobody knew what it was. So we had to educate the people. Coffee was coffee. Coffee was a commodity in a can, and that was it. So little by little people became more sophisticated in how they drank coffee. And we came out with a brand called Don Francisco. Francisco was my father, and Don was a title of respect, so Don Francisco was the title we came out with in retail to honor our dad.

Q: How has the growth in popularity of coffee shops changed your business and what you provide?

A: Well, we are providers to some of those coffeehouses, so for us it's been awesome. On the other side, our Don Francisco brand, it's a premium-brand coffee. So people want better things for themselves. It changed what people expect from coffee. Now people expect more.

Q: Do you ever find yourself out at other coffee shops, tasting and comparing brands?

A: Of course. And we do it here as well. We bring in a competitor, and we taste it against our own.

Q: Have you ever been out with somebody and had to buy your own coffee?

A: I have, and I have run out of coffee at home and I have gone to the store and bought some of my own coffee.

Q: Are there places near your home that serve your coffee?

A: Yes, Porto's Bakery and Coffee Express on Glendale Avenue.

Q: Do you ever buy your coffee from them?

A: Yes, I do.

Q: Some of your coffee blends target specific ethnic groups, like Latinos and Italians. Has living among the Armenian community in Glendale influenced any of your blends?

A: We are immigrants ourselves. We are originally from Cuba. So when we came here my dad wanted to get back into the coffee business. And our first product here was an espresso product because that's what we drank. And then he started selling to restaurants and eventually to other ethnic groups. We sell to the Middle Eastern community. We went in and we kind of asked them how it was they drank their coffee, and we came up with blends for them. Armenians, Ethiopians and Vietnamese the same way.

Q: How different are coffee blends targeted to different ethnic groups?

A: The roast is different, the beans are different. For example, for Middle Eastern there are like three different roasts. It's a light, which is like regular coffee, medium, which is like an espresso, and a dark, that would be the French.

Q: Isn't freshly ground, brewed coffee somewhat of a luxury for most people during the recession?

A: Drinking it at home is not expensive at all.

Q: Have you changed your strategy to target people drinking coffee at home?

A: That's always been our strategy.

Q: Why?

A: When you wake up in the morning, what is the first thing that you do? Or maybe the third thing that you do. You go to the kitchen, you open your pantry you get your coffee out, or you open your freezer and you get your coffee out and you brew yourself a cup of coffee. Before you get ready or you turn on the TV, etc. And then you enjoy that cup of coffee. That's what we want to have. That first cup of coffee.

Q: Has the recession affected the coffee business in general?

A: It has. In some areas of our business it has. Especially in restaurants and even in some of the coffeehouses. I think it's like 85% of all coffee is drank before 11 o'clock in the morning. So breakfast is a huge, huge area for your restaurants and coffeehouses. If a person doesn't have to go out to work because they don't have a job, they won't go out to get a cup of coffee. They'll stay home and brew a cup of coffee.

Q: Do you think coffee shop culture is a fad that will die out?

A: I don't think it's a fad. If it was a fad it wouldn't have stayed with us for so long. It's a way of people going out and being in a community.

Q: How are American tastes now different from Cuban tastes? Would Gaviña coffee from the United States sell in Cuba also?

A: It would, if Cuba was free. But Cuban-style coffee would be espresso with a lot of sugar.

Q: Would that be popular in the United States also?

A: It is. Our Café La Llave espresso is one of the No. 1 brands in South Florida for the Cuban community.

Q: What happened to the company in Cuba?

A: Oh, Castro took it over. It's gone.

Q: How do you feel about the Castro regime?

A: I'm not political.

Q: Have you ever tried one of your blends that you thought was just plain bad?

A: There are some flavors that I don't like. And that I learned a long time ago that you have to give the customer what the customer wants. You cannot force a client to drink what you like. It's what they like.

Q: Have you ever had too much coffee?

A: Never.

Q: How many times a day do you have coffee?

A: Probably seven cups, eight cups.

Q: Do you have the same kinds of coffee the whole day?

A: I change. My first thing is always the same. I make myself an espresso with milk.

Q: Do some of your relatives not like coffee?

A: Not that I know of.


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