Oakland coffee roaster Mr. Espresso burned by pandemic
There is constant innovation in the Bay Area – sometimes with flaws – and it’s no different in the coffee scene.
But at Mr. Espresso, a family-run coffee roaster and wholesaler based in Oakland that is 43rd year of existence, they have shown that you can be successful by constantly improving something while keeping tradition as a guiding force.
The company was founded in 1978 by Carlo Di Ruocco, an Italian who immigrated to the United States via France with his wife and children and who very much missed the short, sweet, caffeinated drink that Italy is famous for.
Mr. Espresso began as an espresso machine sales and maintenance company and quickly grew into a roasted oak coffee wholesaler that has since grown into a popular brand with a portfolio of hundreds of customers over the decades.
However, like so many other countless companies, Mr Espresso has been hit hard by the pandemic. The company lost a significant portion of its business as its customers closed their stores or drastically reduced their purchases across the state and beyond.
Even so, the company’s director of sales and marketing and one of the founder’s children, Luigi Di Ruocco, said Mr. Espresso should be able to weather the storm and come out a little better on the other end, as he planned to be at some point first ever retail component to open with a coffee shop in Oakland that has been put on hold by the pandemic.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How is the pandemic affecting your company?
A: About 95 percent of our business is wholesale. We supply restaurants, cafes, hotels, offices, and many of these shops have been closed or partially closed since March 2020 or are in some way changing.
The result of our total sales is around 50 percent during the pandemic, so that’s really what it boils down to.
Q: This is a huge success. What did that mean for the business? Have there been layoffs?
A: Yes, it is. We have reduced our staff from around 30 to around 19. And we continue to supply and support our active customers. Since we are a family company, six of the 19 employees are family members, so we carry a large part of the burdens of running the company ourselves.
In the meantime, we’ve just really tried to update our ecommerce and focus on social media, but that can’t make up for the decline. But we can just hold on. We have been a family business since 1978, we have no debt, we have no investors.
We don’t make profits, that’s for sure, but we’re not quite as exposed as we could be. And the loan (Paycheck Protection Program) helped us guide ourselves through this process. So we just look forward to recovery whenever that may be.
Q: At the end of 2019, you had signed a contract with Facebook to deliver the coffee in all of your micro-kitchens at your Bay Area office locations for 2020. What happened to it
A: That was too bad. We sold them coffee for the first three months of the year and it was a large volume. They buy a lot of coffee. And then it went away, so it has been practically nothing since then.
They know the roasters are excited to be the roaster of choice for the year so they thought it was fair to extend it for us through 2021 and we’re glad they agreed to it, but we don’t know what it is still means. Right now, their return date is July 1st, but we just don’t know what the food and drinks will be like on campus when they return.
Q: How did your father get into his business?
When an Italian moves to the United States and finds no espresso, or very hard to find, he realizes that he is missing something from his homeland and he decided to try and spread it here.
He started by importing a couple of espresso machines from Italy and storing them in our garage to supply the Italian restaurants and delis. He worked for the Otis Elevator Company so he had an electrical and mechanical background and was able to transfer many of those skills to espresso machines.
Q: How did it grow from then on?
A: He initially worked as an espresso in the evenings and on weekends, but eventually quit his Otis job and began roasting his own blend near Naples in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Our first blend, which is still our signature blend to this day, is our Neapolitan espresso blend.
Q: So today you have an old roast from over 40 years on the shelves on your wholesale menu?
Yes sir. Tradition is almost like a bad thing these days because people are so innovative in a market like the Bay Area. It makes you seem old-fashioned or too connected to the past. Espresso was invented in Italy around the turn of the century. For us, this mixture for 42 years, which was inspired by our father’s homeland, there are about 120 years of heritage and tradition that we carry on, 40 years of which alone.
I think people will hopefully begin to realize that tradition doesn’t necessarily mean standing still, but can carry on something learned and keep improving. But it’s also a taste memory that has been tested over the years and passed down from generation to generation. It’s valued in other kitchens, traditions, and cross-generational lore, but coffee has been the focus of innovation for 20 years.
Q: Why does Mr. Espresso use oak instead of gas to roast?
When my father was a teenager in Italy, he worked at a local wood-processing roaster in Salerno and learned the trade there. Every piece of wood contains moisture. So when you burn the piece of wood to fire the roaster, it’s a slower, wetter roast that reduces the acidity of the coffee and develops the body and sweetness.
Q: You recently launched a single-serve coffee bag in collaboration with Steeped Coffee of Scotts Valley. Was that carried out by the pandemic or was it already in the works?
A: We knew about it beforehand, we had tested it, but it didn’t become a priority during that time. So during the pandemic it was good, why not? It has always been very fascinating that these are completely compostable single serve coffee products. But with the pandemic and social distancing and making your own cup of coffee, they added another intrigue to the market. In addition, the steeped bags are positioning themselves well in the outdoor market for people who camp, hike and bike.
Q: What lasting effects do you think the pandemic will have on your business and the coffee wholesale trade as a whole?
I believe there will be permanent damage. I think 20 percent of what was on the market (from potential customers) before will be gone, or even more. Without a crystal ball, I don’t know how those 20 percent reappear. Is it coming back as the same type of company that left, or is it coming back through a different business model? I think everyone is predicting that you will see fewer restaurants and a lot more fast-casual, take-away, and delivery concepts.
So we need to focus on reclaiming this business through what is left of the hospitality industry such as cafes, coffee houses and bakeries and try to build our presence there and also more online sales.
But we’ll have to wait and see what this fallout is first.
Name: Luigi Di Ruocco
Title: Director of Sales and Marketing at Mr. Espresso
Education: St. Mary’s College of California. Bachelor in Business Administration and Economics
Family: Wife Mary and three daughters Isabella, 9, Celine, 5, and Violet, 4 months
Five things you should know about the people behind Mr. Espresso
1. Mr. Espresso donated approximately 5,000 pounds of coffee and cash donations to COVID-19 relief efforts in the Bay Area, among other things.
2. The oak wood that the company uses typically burns at temperatures of 1,000 degrees and higher during roasting.
3. Luigi Di Ruocco is the only one of three children of Carlo Di Ruocco and his wife Marie Francoise, who was born in the USA
4. Carlo Di Ruocco is now 86 years old but is featured on the front of every bag of coffee the company sells.
5. Luigi has no plans to let his three daughters have coffee until at least high school or afterwards. “Children are children, they have a lot of energy for themselves.”