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.

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