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Cafe Bustelo: Cuban Coffee Emerges From the Bodega and Goes Mainstream to American Coffee-Lovers!

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Good, strong coffee is one of my passions. You may remember my HuffPost article in April in which I initiated a movement for restaurants to rethink their coffee service by offering diners several different blends of coffee at the end of a meal, the choice depending partly upon the dessert ordered. And it would be prepared at the table in a French press with a little timer. Everyone praised the idea but no one except the upscale seafood restaurant, Providence, seems to have initiated even part of the concept.

Cafe Bustelo
The vacuum-packed 10 oz. package of Cafe Bustelo

When a friend sent me some brick-like, vacuum-packed, yellow and red packages of Cafe Bustelo and cans of its Bustelo Cool, I was intrigued and curious enough to immediately brew a steaming hot pot of the rich espresso blend. Whitened with a dribble of half-and-half, it was such a revelation taste-wise that I have never gone back to my old standby of French roast from Trader Joe's. Shortly thereafter, an article about this Bustelo coffee appeared in the sunday New York Times, and I was propelled to explore it further with the help of Chantal Meza of Rowland Coffee Roasters of Miami, which owns the brand. Founded in the Bronx in the 1920s by Gregario Bustelo, the company was bought in 2000 by Rowland, a family-owned firm in Miami/Doral. Jose "Pepe" Souto and his father came to Florida in 1960 from Cuba after losing the successful coffee business they had built there starting in 1865. Here he found a local roaster to replicate the family's unique blend and, with a few thousand dollars and the help of his wife of 68 years, Haydee, started selling their Cuban-style coffee door to door from an old Volkswagen. As each son reached driving age, he outfitted him with an old Beetle to help with the deliveries. By 1957, he bought the 'Pilon' brand from a company called Rowland and established a Hialeah roasting plant with three employees. In 1975 they reached out beyond Florida and opened a New Jersey distribution center.

One of his sons told me that his dad was very flexible, and that he embraced vacuum-packed, 'brick' technology as soon as it became available in 1982. But they have never changed the original blend -- the strong espresso with a unique flavor which I have come to passionately enjoy. They now have 150 employees and warehouses across the country. John Paul (J.P.), the 35-year old grandson of the founder, has taken over the marketing and is determined to raise the coffee-maker's profile from being the preeminent Hispanic java to a mainstream favorite. "I have been working in the company since I was 14 and drinking coffee since the cradle. People say it was in my bottle, just a little cafe con leche."

Friends tell me that it was a major brand on view at the recent Coachella Valley Music Festival, where iced cans of Bustelo Cool (café con leche in a can) were distributed by girls wearing bright yellow and red swimsuits. And a coffee-and-vodka drink called a Dirty Bustelo was ever-popular. It was served at the last Oscar party at Kodak's Hollywood theatre but don't recall seeing it there. They were a presence at the recent Sundance Film Festival and are even mentioned lyrically in "Rent" ("Bustelo, Marlboro, banana by the bunch.")
Cool, Bustelo Cool
Bustelo Cool is the coffee in a can!

Going from the bodega to the mainstream arena has not been easy, but the plain yellow and red can or brick with the potent, inexpensive blend seems to be weathering it well. My sister, Ann Sowers, recently told me of her visit to Bustelo's first flagship store at the elegant Gansevoort Hotel in South Miami. Now celebrating its 82nd year as the world's leading and most recognizable espresso coffee brand, the company is moving mightily to bridge the gap between generations of its loyalists and newly-initiated fans (like me) while reawakening the traditional Latin and European coffee break. The sixth generation of the Souto family is at the helm of Rowland, which underwent a rebirth of its own following the third generation of the Souto family's relocation from Cuba. Today, more than 134 years since the company's inception, in a different time and place, the Souto family still follows the family's philosophy that the best coffee is achieved through excellent quality beans and roasting perfection, From its state-of-the-art facility in Miami, the Souto family fuses technology and tradition, producing more than 12 internationally-popular coffee brands in the style of days gone by. J.P. told me that the expansion of the company must be rooted in its rich heritage, thus the rolling out of their coffee shops will proceed slowly and organically. "Now is the time to build on Café Bustelo's history dating back to the 1930s as the best-loved Cuban-style espresso by expanding into coffee shops, so eventually we can share the best coffee in the world with everyone."

When I asked when he would come to L.A., he merely smiled and said, "We are looking into it." On my behalf, my sister reported having a single and double shot espresso, café con leche, a popular contradito, cappuccino and an American coffee. Then she sampled the newly-launched Bustelo tea and Bustelo Cool, a convenient ready-to-drink can. She rhapsodized about a guava-filled pastry and a Bustelo rice pudding, but I ignored that. Note to readers: Café Bustelo is available in L.A. in many 7-Eleven and Walgreen Stores, some Ralph's, Jon's and even a Gelson's, as well as various markets in Koreatown and online at www.javacabana.com. At $3+change for a 10 oz. brick, it's a fabulous buy.
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More and more mainstream markets are carrying the brand

This Arabica roast is stronger and more flavorful than anything else I have found in the market. Es mas café. Chantal says that since 2000 Bustelo sales have increased 57% to $58 million. The powerful, rich 100% Arabica blend especially roasted for espresso is relatively inexpensive (a 10 oz. brick sells for about $3.20 on their website), a little goes a long way, and I urge you to try it....if you are a true coffee aficianado, you'll like it. As a friend said after he sampled mine, "One cup and you want to start a revolution!"

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter, email him at jayweston@sbcglobal.net.

Around the Web

Cafe Bustelo

Café Bustelo - Out of the Bodega and Onto the Scene - NYTimes.com

Cafe Bustelo - An Experiment in Super-Cheap Coffee - Slashfood

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