National Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight
Lisette Gaviña starts her day off with a couple of cups of coffee before work like most of us. She has another brewed cup when she gets to the factory. After lunch she’ll have an espresso and later in the afternoon to satisfy her sweet tooth, she’ll indulge in a flavored version of the bean. But that’s not why she has coffee running through her veins.
Born in Los Angeles, Gaviña is the Chairman of the Board and Managing Director of F. Gaviña and Sons, which helped start a coffee revolution in Los Angeles when her family fled Cuba in the early ’60’s and came to L.A.
It all began more than 150 years ago, when her great grandfather Jose Maria Gaviña and his brother Ramon Gaviña started out as coffee growers in Cuba. They left the Basque region of Spain and came to the new world as adventurers. They were farmers in Spain and wanted to farm in Cuba. At first they planted tobacco and a hurricane destroyed their crop. So they moved to the more mountainous interior of the island, which was the perfect elevation and climate for coffee. The brothers planted trees and became coffee farmers and went on to become roasters in Cuba during the Great Depression.
“My grandfather was born on the plantation, and learned from his father how to cultivate coffee and how to select the best beans for roasting to make an espresso, which comes from our Spanish heritage,” the petite Latina tells L.A. Weekly, as she carefully inspects the green coffee beans that are delivered to the Vernon-based facility daily.
“But by 1960 Fidel Castro came into power and things started to change. The priests warned the family that the government was going to take their children away. Farmers were being kidnapped from their properties, beaten up mentally and physically. The government confiscated the farms. Operation Peter Pan was bringing in American planes and Cuban parents were handing over their children to American families because they would rather see their children grow up with freedom and opportunity than have them be indoctrinated against their parents or have children turn their parents in for overhearing anti-communist conversations. Some were reunited, some never saw their families again. ”
It was time to leave.
With the equivalent of $150 and one suitcase per family, the Gaviñas returned to Spain, waiting for the tumult to blow over. It didn’t. Nobody ever thought the revolution would last for 60 years. It was a big transition moving from the warm tropical climate of Cuba to the cold and rainy north of Spain, not just for Lisette’s grandparents but her father, who was 13 and his brothers a few years apart.
Her grandfather Francisco yearned to get back into the coffee business and after having studied in the United States in the late ’20’s, came to California via Miami to find a job.
“At first it was just about survival and putting a roof over their heads,” says the USC graduate. “Once everybody came over my grandfather was a porter in a restaurant called the French Cafe in Montbello. Then his sons, my uncles and my dad were the bus boys and waiters. My dad later worked at the Sportsman’s Lodge. One uncle worked as a mechanic and the other went to school for engineering.”
Through his restaurant contacts, Francisco had the opportunity to buy a small roaster which belonged to the Bob’s Big Boy restaurants. In the ’60’s most super markets and restaurants would roast their own coffee. It was in Carlsbad, so the family rented a truck and drove to Carlsbad, dismantled the roaster and brought it back to LA and set it up on a small patch of Vernon Avenue in 1967.
“When my family came here, coffee was very different in LA in the ‘60s versus now,” says Lisette.” It was light roast coffee in cans and nobody knew what the word barista even meant. The small Italian community that was here understood what espresso was to us. So there was this desire to make coffee for ourselves and there was the opportunity because it didn’t exist here. Our knowledge of coffee was dark roast.”
They rented a small commercial space, about 1,100 square feet and set up the roaster. By Easter of 1967 the family was roasting coffee again. It started out small with Cafe Gaviña, which is an espresso, one blend, packaged in paper bags. First they sold to the small Cuban community in L.A., which at the time was mainly Echo Park, Silver Lake, Downey and Huntington Park and later Glendale. They started selling to the little Cuban markets, restaurants and bakeries. It was a bootstrap operation with humble beginnings. Jose continued to work in the restaurant at the Sportsman’s Lodge at night for the first five years. Slowly, they started to gain traction.
Then came the gourmet coffee revolution in the ‘80s when single origin coffees like Colombian supremo or kona fancy came on the market and Gaviña started sourcing those coffees and selling them through the gourmet shops. With the growing influx of immigrants to the city , the company saw the opportunity of catering to the coffee tastes of the various communities. They started sourcing those kinds of coffees and creating blends for them.
“We had the middle eastern immigration and the Vietnamese immigration,” she says. “These communities have very specific coffee profiles that they like. First we catered to our community and then started learning about these other communities and started custom roasting for them. Because of the French influence in Vietnam, they like dark roast french roast style coffee. So we started developing a double french roast just for that community. They like to grind their own coffee in the stores and markets. The Middle Eastern community likes a species of coffee called robusta. The robusta plant is a very hearty plant with a distinctive aroma and is very strong coffee.”
By 1984 the company ventured into grocery stores like Von’s and Lucky’s . It was a general market offering with single origin medium roast coffees, that came as whole bean coffee in a bag, at a time when most coffee in markets was ground and came in cans. Named after her grandfather, the Don Francisco brand was born.
Growing and continuing to blossom, the currently 100 percent family owned business bought an old Sears warehouse in 1998 and built a brand new building to their specifications. All the roasting and packing here of a now multi million dollar business is done in the 239,000 square feet facility. More than 100,000 pounds of coffee beans come into the factory daily and get roasted and processed.
The building was built with efficiency in mind. Skylights were installed to use as much natural light as possible. The cooling system helps keep the environment cool. It’s a zero waste to landfill plant, directing more than 90 percent of its waste from landfills. The imported coffee from the producing countries, l comes in burlap bags which are picked up by a recycler and are reused. Chaff, the byproduct of roasted coffee, is an organic material that instead of going into landfill gets used in organic fertilizer and animal feed. Clear plastic, cardboard and material from the capsules also gets recycled.
“My grandfather would say to me and my cousins, if you’re going to live from coffee, you’re going to need to learn how to drink coffee,” Lisette says during a tour of the plant where each employee she passes waves and smiles at her. “He would dip our pacifiers in espresso and put it back in our mouths. Culturally coffee for hispanics and anybody of Latin culture is a staple. It’s common for kids to start the day with cafe con leche in the morning.”
Lisette’s 71-year-old aunt Leonor works side-by-side with her every day. Her cousin Michael oversees finance and accounting and cousin Frank oversees manufacturing, operations and human resources. Together they co-lead the company with the advice of their parents’ generation which is still active in the company. With 14 family members working there, she says it’s a big enough business that everybody can find their place. There are about 260 employees working in manufacturing, sales, marketing, product development, accounting, finance, and production.
“I grew up coming to work with my dad,” says Lisette who along with the entire Gaviña brood grew up in the San Gabriel Valley. “And not just summer vacations. We came in on Easter break and holidays and they’d put me and my cousins to work, whether it was packing coffee on the line or learning how to cup and taste coffee or putting brochures together . That’s how we learned the business. It gave us a strong work ethic. We always saw our parents and uncles working and we were taught to work at a very young age. My grandfather would come into work and read the Wall Street Journal every day in the morning and then walk through the green coffee warehouse, looking at the quality of beans his kids were buying. He was all about quality.”
But at the end – or the beginning of the day – it’s Francisco’s passion for coffee and family bonding that is the key to the 55 year success of the Gaviña empire that lives on in L.A. The brand includes the flagship premium brand Don Francisco’s Coffee, as well as the Latin-style espresso Café La Llave. The Don Francisco’s Coffee Family Reserve line with an array of regular and flavored coffees like butterscotch toffee and cinnamon hazelnut as well as roast styles made for a variety of brewing methods, including pods and espresso capsules. In addition to the retail brands, their food service arm of the company, Gavina Gourmet Coffee, is available at coffee houses and restaurants across the southland, including Porto’s bakeries.
“Coffee is universal,” says the fourth generation coffee roaster. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, what situation you’re in or language you speak. Everybody can appreciate a nice warm cup of coffee and the comfort and energy it gives you.”
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