How Café Bustelo keeps the Cuban diaspora in touch with its roots
Credit: Photo by goblinbox_(queen_of_ad_hoc_bento) via Flickr

All my life, I’ve had variations on the same breakfast: Cuban-style coffee and toast. Mornings before preschool at my grandmother’s house, I wore a disposable plastic apron over my clothes, in case any coffee dribbled off a dunked piece of bread on its journey from mug to mouth.

I still have a cup of café con leche every morning, but I don’t make it like my grandmother does. Instead of a stovetop pot, I use an espresso machine. I use about half the amount of milk she does and heat it in an enamel mug, which often boils over. I no longer add sugar, while she adds at least two teaspoons. I drink it with a slice of sourdough toast instead of Cuban bread, because I like to limit my lard intake. (Pan de manteca, which is pale, squishy, and perfect, is made with pork fat. When toasted, it’s remarkably crunchy but moist. Outside of breakfast, it’s best used as a vehicle for more pork.)

This meal is made possible by a brand of coffee you’ve likely seen in the background of an HBO show set in Brooklyn, like Girls or High Maintenance: Café Bustelo. The red and yellow Café Bustelo tin is to the hipster kitchen what Heinz ketchup bottles are to American diners. A product that was developed to serve niche immigrant populations in New York and Miami has expanded to include anyone who wants good, cheap coffee. What was once stocked at Latino markets and bodegas is now available in 36-ounce containers at Target.

Despite its association with Cuba, the Café Bustelo brand was built by a Spaniard. When Gregorio Bustelo arrived in East Harlem in the late 1920s, he saw an opportunity to serve the area’s population of immigrants from Spanish speaking countries. As a product, Café Bustelo satisfied both a tangible and abstract need, providing consumers with a tool to carry on tradition. Bustelo tapped into an existing community and turned it into a strong, identifiable marketing demographic. The term Hispanic may have been invented by the Nixon administration, but it started with products like Bustelo.

By the midcentury, Café Bustelo, along with the nation’s Latino population, had expanded enough to attract the attention of the multinational Tetley, which bought the company in 1963. In 2000, Tetley decided to sell off their U.S. espresso division to Rowland Coffee Roasters, a Miami-based company owned by Cuban immigrants whose family had been in the coffee business for centuries. Along the way, Rowland Coffee Roasters had collected smaller brands like Café Pilon, the most popular coffee brand in Cuba before the revolution, and El Pico.

Seven years ago, Rowland was bought by J.M. Smucker, a conglomerate whose first products came from trees planted by Johnny Appleseed. After less than 80 years in the states, it seemed that Café Bustelo had reached full assimilation. With its acquisition of Rowland, Smucker took ownership of every major Latino coffee brand in America. For this, it paid just $360 million dollars. At the time of the acquisition, Time referred to Café Bustelo as a “Miami Cuban coffee brand with little national recognition.” In the years since, Bustelo’s profile has edged up significantly and its products have been a boon to the Smucker coffee portfolio, which includes the struggling Folgers brand. (Folgers, acquired three years before Bustelo, cost Smucker $3 billion, plus $350 million dollars of debt.)

Authenticity has always been a key feature of Café Bustelo’s identity, and marketers have worked carefully to maintain core customers while attracting new ones. “Generations have connected over a cup of Café Bustelo,” the company’s website says, “and now it’s your turn to experience authentica sabor latino.” Bustelo’s recent shift to capitalize on Latino values broadly is especially tactful given its indirect connection to Cuba. While Bustelo’s coffee may have originated from the island before the revolution, for the majority of its existence, the brand’s crop has been sourced from other countries. Cuba’s coffee industry, now government-run, is limited. Citizens receive coffee rations, and cut them with things like ground garbanzo beans, lentils, and peas to extend the supply. Milk is scarcely available.

As with many elements of Cuban cuisine, it can feel strange to take pleasure in something that was originated by people who, for the most part, can no longer enjoy it. In the United States, Cuban culture has an outsize presence as a means of preservation. But ethnic identities inevitably fade in this country. Assimilation is viewed as success. Recipes are forgotten, last names disappear, languages aren’t spoken. The Pew Center tells us that this is happening increasingly among Latinos, with fewer self-identifying with their families’ countries of origin, generation by generation. I don’t speak Spanish as well or often as I’d like to, and the last time I made black beans from scratch, the result was chunky.

But café con leche—that I have internalized and mastered. There’s nothing better than a smooth cup of espresso and milk, paired with a crusty piece of bread first thing in the morning. To be honest, I’ve stuck to Café Bustelo not out of a conscious desire to embrace my heritage, but for a combination of more mundane reasons: familiarity, routine, frugality (all very Cuban traits). And I haven’t found anything that tastes as good. The best traditions are things done not out of a sense of obligation, but comfort. They last.