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Brewing Bustelo: the unlikely story of how a Cuban flavor captured the attention of New York and then the Nation


The Cuba of the U.S. imagination as captured in 1904. Photograph courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Bustelo Coffee should be pretty self-explanatory. It is a beloved Cuban-style coffee which became a serious staple among Cuban immigrants in New York City and then charmed its way into the homes of immigrants from Puerto Rico and  the Dominican Republic, and then everyone else. Now try walking into a bodego (corner store)in any of the 5 boroughs without passing by a brick of vacuum-sealed, brilliantly-colored Café Bustelo. This one-time family roaster is about to hit the world stage, or at least the national stage. But let’s start at the beginning.

Gregorio Bustelo was actually born in Galicia, Spain. As a young man, he moved to Cuba and fell in love with the country’s rich, dark-roasted coffee.  Cuban-style coffee is usually taken with sugar and frothed with a little bit of hot espresso for lovely, creamy espumita (foam on top).  Who could resist?

Gregorio fell in love with the people of Cuba as well, specifically a woman who loved Cuban coffee as much as he did. The couple married and moved to Puerto Rico to pursue opportunities in the coffee industry. Soon after they arrived in Puerto Rico, the Jones-Shafroth Act was signed into law. This Act made all Puerto Ricans American citizens, greatly simpifying immigration to the United States. The Act also simplified Puerto Rican laws, giving the U.S. government the ability to dissolve any Puerto Rican legislation.  Two months later, 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted into the First World War.

A simpler version of commerce captured in Cuba in 1904. Photography courtesy of the NYPL.

The Bustelos joined hundreds of newly Americanized Puerto Ricans who moved to the United States hoping for better job opportunities. The Bustelos settled in East Harlem, also called Spanish Harlem and El Barrio, because of the predominance of Spanish speaking immigrants, many of them from Puerto Rico. The Bustelos, having a hard time finding work, went all in on what they knew best: roasting coffee. Spending their savings on a coffee roaster, the Bustelos began roasting at home, which was conveniently located down the street from a movie theater. The couple thoughtfully roasted just as the movies were letting out, seducing patrons with that most tempting of aromas: freshly roasted coffee.  By selling coffee out of their apartment at night and to area restaurants during the day, the Bustelos were able to open their own storefront in 1931 on 5th Avenue between 114th and 113th.

The brand prospered, especially as immigrants from the Carribean streamed into New York, eager for a little taste of home and, one imagines, a little extra energy to take on the big city.

In 2000, Bustelo was finally bought by Rowland, a rival family-owned company with Cuban roots. Rowland was owned by the Soutos family, who began the company  after arriving in Florida in 1960. They had already lost a successful coffee business that the family had held since 1865, so  like the Bustelos, the Soutos had to build their U.S. company from scratch. Once Rowland bought Bustelo marketing significantly expanded.  J.P. Souto felt that young people were a perfect untapped market for the sweet flavor of Café Bustelo. 2009 saw Bustelo ‘host’ parties in Cochella and other popular, high-end music festivals in a bid to work their way into the energy-hungry hands of young consumers, especially those whose abuelos didn’t know from Bustelo. The brand was eager to bring in young people who were outside of the brand’s heritage demographic.

But in recent years, Bustelo has changed hands once again to J.M. Smucker, the company that often claims to have first made apple butter from apples planted by Johnny Apple seed himself.  This all-American company has recently seen the advantages of pulling in a brand with a loyal hispanic following.  According to National Public Radio, the the most recent census showed that the Cuban population is on the rise in every State in the union. Can Bustelo keep its special New York brand of Cuban flavor under the umbrella of an American corporate giant? There is only one way to find out. Keep tasting Bustelo.

The Americas runs on coffee. Who doesn't need a cafecito now and again? Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Is coffee research one of the U.S. Government’s 12 good reasons to visit Cuba?


–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator