For nearly four decades, F. Gavina & Sons has been roasting coffee in Vernon, growing steadily and creating special blends to suit L.A.'s varied ethnic tastes

The smell of roasting coffee spills out of the boxy, beige factory of F. Gavina & Sons, a Vernon-based specialty coffee company whose roots reach back to the green mountains of Cuba.

For nearly four decades, the Gavina family has roasted, ground and packaged coffee into special blends aimed at L.A.'s ethnic populations. They've provided brews to the Cuban coffeehouses that dot the area and the small Latino, Armenian and Vietnamese grocery stores that have sprung up over the years.

The company's Don Francisco retail brand is one of the top whole-bean brands in Southern California supermarkets, reaching customers at Vons, Ralphs, Albertson's and Costco. It is No. 2 in the total grocery store coffee market in the area.

The Gavinas are one of a handful of longtime, family-run specialty coffee companies in Los Angeles that have weathered the ups and downs of the market. They survived the big freeze in Brazil that sent coffee prices soaring in the mid-1970s. They have staved off the onslaught of big-time coffee companies such as Starbucks, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and Peet's Coffee. They have ridden the wave of coffee's popularity that has found Americans waking up and smelling the espresso. Nearly one-half of all American consumers now are coffee drinkers.

The coffee industry has changed drastically since Francisco Gavina, also known as Don Francisco, arrived in the United States in 1962 after his family's coffee plantation was confiscated by the Cuban government. In those days, a cup of joe cost a dime and came in two varieties: caffeinated and decaffeinated.

Starbucks was an unknown commodity instead of a $2 billion corporation. And only gourmets had heard of specialty blends.

The beginnings

But Don Francisco knew what real coffee tasted like. On his father's coffee plantation, started in 1870, coffee was grown and roasted to provide a rich flavor so strong it practically took the enamel off your teeth.

As a new immigrant in the United States, Gavina wasn't sure what direction his life would take. He took a variety of odd jobs in Miami until he decided that California would provide more opportunities for him and his family, which was still back in Spain after leaving Cuba.

In Los Angeles, he picked up more odd jobs until he heard through acquaintances that there was a used coffee roaster and grinder for sale. He purchased the equipment and planted the seeds of his coffee roasting company that opened in Vernon in 1967.

Although the patriarch passed away in 1996 at the age of 92, his four children carry on the tradition at the vast coffee factory sprinkled across several buildings in this industrial zone of Los Angeles.

"Gavina espresso coffees were our first product," says Leonor, 48, the company's vice president and the youngest of the four siblings. Pedro, 56, is the president. Paco, 57, is another vice president. And Jose, 54, is secretary-treasurer. "We started selling to the mom-and-pop Cuban and Latino stores and grew from there."

Ted Lingle remembers the Gavinas' modest beginnings. Lingle's family, which owns Lingle Brothers Coffee Inc. of Bell Gardens, said that Don Francisco bought his first used coffee equipment from them.

But while Lingle Brothers Coffee has grown modestly to about $10 million a year in revenue, F. Gavina & Sons' revenue has mushroomed to nearly $60 million, becoming a coffee supplier in 1985 to McDonald's Corp. in Southern California.

"At the time they came here, they were creating an espresso product that was difficult to find in the late 1960s when there wasn't a specialty coffee industry here," said Lingle, now executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in Long Beach. "Because of their background, they were quickly able to figure out the Latino market."

Since then, they have figured out the Armenian and Vietnamese markets, catering in the 1970s to a new wave of immigrants arriving in Los Angeles.

From there they branched out to Miami with a special coffee line called Caf & #233; La Llave, an espresso "with Latin spirit," which translates into "pretty strong."

Steady growth

F. Gavina & Sons' success has been built on slow, steady growth. Its revenues have inched up 10 to 15 percent a year, to the point where they now employ 220 employees and roast almost 22 million pounds of coffee beans a year. Sometime this year, the company plans to move into a new 220,000-square-foot factory a few blocks away from its present location.

Gavina is not as big as Farmer Brothers Coffee Co., a $220-million family-run enterprise in Torrance that was launched in 1912. Farmer Brothers provides coffee to restaurants and hotels. But Gavina is not as small as Apffel Coffee Co. of Los Angeles, which Edward Apffel founded in Oakland in 1914.

Gavina nonetheless has plans to be a major force in Southern California. While its wholesale business makes up 60 percent of total business, the Gavina family is hoping to increase the retail side of the company. They are branching out to the Northeast, targeting Massachusetts, New Jersey and surrounding areas.

And the hint of a softening economy doesn't have Gavina and local coffee roasters worrying about the future of their business. They only see demand for java growing as coffeehouses continue to sprout up across the country.

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