The North End thrives on family-owned businesses. Scene tells the story of the Elia family’s breakthrough in bringing quality coffee to the North End
Mimmo Elia likes to tell the story behind the Guglielmo family coffee that he, his brother Roberto and his father Domenico have been selling in the United States for the last 20 years.
In 1945 Guglielmo Papaleo started a family coffee business. He opened a shop in “Corso Mazzini,” the central restaurant and shopping area in Coscenza, Italy, where he put his first coffee machine. Two years later, in 1947 he began to produce and sell coffee and expanded the rooms of his shop in order for patrons to try his coffee on-site—an original cafe.
If you wanted an espresso it was roasted on the spot and Papaleo. slowly and carefully created a base of customers who loved his coffee. It was all about the quality and small batches roasted at his facility, which he would drive around delivering to the local coffee shops.
“Today everybody walks around the North End with such a positive attitude but back then the guys that ran those shops were hard core.” Mimmo Elia
This worked well for him, there was not a lot of competition back then and he grew the company into a multi-million dollar manufacturing business located in Copanello di Staletti Province in Calabria, Italy, which has been family-run since its inception.
Elia is founder of L’Espresso USA, an importing company that sells Guglielmo coffee and Italian coffee machines based in Waltham, Massachusetts. L’Espres-so USA was founded in 2000 with Mimmo’s father Domenico, who has played a big role in how the company has grown from a small coffee import business to a firm with five distributors nationwide and hundreds of state-wide customers.
“My father got involved in 2000 with the local distribution, with servicing and growing the local customer base. That’s when things really turned around for us. Ever since he has been the face of the company. In the North End they all know him and love him.”
Elia has been living in Boston ever since he was 12 years old. Born in Calabria, he moved to the North End to go to school and stayed with his mother’s family, all cousins, who were living in the Boston area and the North End. After attending Northeastern University where he received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, all in Mechanical Engineering, he began hanging around the North End in 1996 and ’97 with his cousins Angelo, Enzo, Mario and Dominic, looking for a good cup of coffee.
He could not find what would be thought of as a “no brainer”—an excellent cup of espresso—in this infamous section of Boston where the restaurants and cafes have attracted people from all over the world.
Elia had identified a niche and a possible business opportunity. The restaurants and cafes in this unique part of the city were in need of a great cup of coffee. Working out of his apartment, he tried to build relationships and being Italian, that was not so difficult but getting them to try his product was much harder.
LavAzza, the largest importer of Italian coffee in the world, was around then and as far as the restaurant owners were concerned, the relationships that they had with the importer were more important than the brand. LavAzza was known but Guglielmo was better. It took a lot of effort to basically break in and he and his cousin both had to get other jobs to support their vision.
Elia needed someone to say yes
“We spent more money at the coffee shops trying to establish relationships with the owners than the coffee that they were buying back from us,” laughs Mimmo. “We would go to dinner at these restaurants, bring friends and become friendly with the owners of those restaurants, but it was tough back in those days. Today everybody walks around the North End with such a positive attitude but back then the guys that ran those shops were hard core.”
After knocking on doors for two years they finally got a break. The former owner of Caffè Pompei, Frank Pezzano, who was a permanent fixture outside his restaurant with his huge cordless phone, was the first one to buy in. Caffè Pompei was known around the city as an after-hours café-big at night and open late—and that’s where they sold a lot of their coffee. One day Pezzano called Elia and ordered 100 pounds of coffee.
“It was around 1999 or so that we brought Guglielmo on board,” says Elia, “and we didn’t approach them at first because it seemed that is was a big stretch for two young kids to take on that huge brand. But after two years of canvassing these Boston neighborhoods, I was certain we could make a business out of it.”
Papaleo was reluctant to take them seriously at first and said no because people had tried to take the Guglielmo brand coffee to the US market and failed. Elia was persistent. He was dealing directly with Papaleo, who he convinced to give them a chance. Elia told him he’d be willing to buy a container- each container is 22 pallets, each pallet is 500 kilograms, totaling 22,000 pounds of coffee. It was a lot of money and they went way out on a limb to show Papaleo they were serious. Domenico helped to fund it as Guglielmo was not going to ship anything that wasn’t paid in advance
“I remember it to this day. He was our biggest guy-our first big order. And we didn’t have 100 pounds, so we needed that new batch from Italy by plane from the Guglielmo family and I guess the rest is kind of history.”
Elia found out that upon Papaleo’s death he had instructed his family not to “mess with” Mimmo and they have been working with the Guglielmo family ever since.
Photo Credit Guglielmo coffee