Out of the Bodega and Onto the Scene

Axel Koester for The New York Times WHAT’S YELLOW AND RED AND EVERYWHERE? Bustelo wants to be at all the right parties. By BEN SISARIO Published: April 24, 2009 INDIO, Calif.

Axel Koester for The New York Times Rowland Coffee Roasters of Miami, the owner, has been getting the name out to people like Catalina Vallejos, above, who was at a music festival party.

LOOK FAMILIAR? Café Bustelo in the Bronx. OUTSIDE a small ranch house in the Southern California desert on April 19, one of the satellite parties of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was reaching its midafternoon peak. The D.J. blared Lil Jon into the open air, the V.I.P.’s escaped the baking sun for shade, and the girls by the pool giggled as they tossed around a bright yellow beach ball marked with the logo for one of the party’s sponsors. But unlike most of the 18 other brands on display here (Imeem, Vitaminwater) this one stood out: Café Bustelo, the old Cuban-style espresso. Around the pool, its retro-kitsch symbol was everywhere: on the empty cans of Bustelo Cool littering every table; on the burlap gift bags stamped with “I ♥ Café Bustelo”; and on the artfully ripped T-shirts on the models handing out coffee-and-vodka cocktails they call Dirty Bustelos. For anyone who hasn’t been keeping an eye on beverage marketing, it was enough to draw a confused double-take. A decadent party at a prestigious rock festival is hardly what comes to mind when you think of Café Bustelo, whose plain yellow and red can has been a bodega standby for eight decades. Potent, cheap and with an aura of both urban exotica and blue-collar utility, it’s long been an item on the bohemian shopping list, even making it into the lyrics to “Rent” (“Bustelo, Marlboro, banana by the bunch”). In the D.J. booth, Dominique Keegan, 37, alternated between puffs on a cigarette and praise for the coffee’s down-market perfection. “I live on Avenue C, and I go to the Essex market every day,” he said in a half-Irish, half-French accent. “I get my Bustelo coffee for like $2 a half-pound, and I live on that.” But as if proof that every humble product will eventually get its upscale rebranding, Café Bustelo is in the midst of a makeover. As with Pabst Blue Ribbon and Hush Puppies before it, Bustelo’s appeal to the hipster demographic is being seized upon by a company eager to exploit its every last drop of cool. For the last two years, Bustelo has been a fixture at parties and giveaway suites from the Winter Music Conference to Sundance to the Oscars, and the company behind it has been sending truckloads of it to 50 Cent and Perez Hilton. Whenever there is coolsploitation, however, there is potential trouble, and marketing experts say that Café Bustelo’s reboot will not be easy. For one, it has a loyal Hispanic customer base that it can’t afford to alienate. It also faces competition for that urbanite coffee dollar from Goliaths like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. And then there is the danger that Bustelo might not be as hip as its purveyor thinks it is. “Every company tries to be a lifestyle brand now,” said Jonah Disend, the founder of Redscout, a brand strategy firm in New York. “Everybody comes in and goes to the cool places and thinks it will just work. But it can come off as very hollow.” Bustelo was founded in the Bronx in 1928, and it was bought in 2000 by Rowland Coffee Roasters of Miami, a family-run former rival with deep roots in Cuban coffee making.

For decades, Rowland — and Bustelo, too — did scant promotion beyond routine efforts like grocery samplings. But J. P. Souto, a 33-year-old grandson of the founder, has recently taken over as head of marketing, and Rowland has gone aggressive about raising Bustelo’s profile. Mr. Souto, trim and energetic, with striking blue-green eyes, has been working in the family business since he was 14, and says he has been drinking coffee since the cradle. (“People say it was in my bottle,” he said. “Just a little café con leche.”) He says he had no idea about the jet-set youth subculture until 2007, when he was invited to the Winter Music Conference, the dance-music festival in Miami renowned for its endless parties. He took samples of Bustelo Cool, a newly introduced café con leche in a can whose sales couldn’t get off the ground; older customers were baffled by coffee in a can. But to Mr. Souto’s amazement, the kids snapped it up, looking for something to keep them going all night. “My dad and my uncle would always say, ‘We have to go after the young people, the young people,’ but they didn’t know how to do it,” Mr. Souto said at the Coachella party, swaying to the music by Bustelo’s giveaway tent. “I was seeing people putting four or five of these things in their bag, like they were stealing something. I’m like, ‘Guys, we have to start going to these events.’ ” And indeed they have turned up, everywhere. At the MTV Video Music Awards. Lollapalooza. Los Angeles Fashion Week. On the tour rider for Jennifer Lopez (along with white lilies and Jo Malone scented candles). In music videos by skinny-jeans bands like Cobra Starship. At the elegant Gansevoort hotel in Miami, where Bustelo opened its flagship store last fall. So far it’s been working. The company says that since 2000 Bustelo sales have increased 57 percent, to $58 million, helped by new accounts at Walgreens and 7-Eleven. Still, Bustelo is a mere bean compared with the mountains of the industry, with about a 1 percent market share of ground coffee retail sales, according to Information Resources Inc., a market research firm. Being the underdog — and being inexpensive — can be good for Bustelo’s pitch. It stands to benefit from recession chic, as well as from the backlash against Starbucks, which has closed hundreds of stores and introduced new brews to fight the perception that it has lost its coffeehouse soul. Bustelo, on the other hand, has a wealth of cultural capital to spend, said Allen Adamson of Landor Associates, a branding agency. “With coffee, it’s about the ritual of how you prepare it, the story you tell behind it,” Mr. Adamson said. “How many more Colombian coffee stories can you tell? The Cuban story has the same authenticity, but it’s a little fresher.”

But there are complications. Knowing that it’s unlikely that your average 20-something L train rider will brew espresso at home in Brooklyn, Rowland is pushing Bustelo Cool in hopes of eventually drawing new customers to their wider product line. And then there is its ethnic juggling act. To hold on to its Hispanic base — and to reach younger Hispanics who might not exactly be thrilled by drinking Grandma’s coffee — the company is promoting Tiempo Libre, a Grammy-nominated Cuban-American band, on one million cans of Bustelo. Jorge Gomez, the band’s founder and musical director, said that the deal is the Cuban equivalent of being put on the Wheaties box. “Drinking coffee and dancing salsa is part of our culture and tradition,” Mr. Gomez said. “You make it a party every day, and for a Cuban party you need a little Bustelo coffee and a little music and a little rum.” At the Coachella party, however, salsa — and Tiempo Libre’s variant, timba — was not in favor, and brand recognition was mixed. Jen Cooper, 26, who works in fashion, said she had never heard of Café Bustelo before, and tried it at the urging of her friend, Cristina Parker, 32, a music publicist who is Puerto Rican and grew up in New York. If you have iced coffee in a bottle from any other company, like Starbucks, they’re really milky and make your stomach a little sick,” she said by the bar. “But this is really good.” She grabbed three Bustelo Cools for the road. A moment later, Alison Kendall Dabney, 18, strolled by in a black bikini, carrying one of the yellow beach balls. When asked over the booming bass what she thought of Café Bustelo, Ms. Dabney at first had no reaction. But when directed to the logo, she smiled and pointed to the flower in her hair, which had come from a patch of violets nearby. “The flowers over there are purple, and this is yellow,” she said, holding the ball. “And the purple and the yellow contrast really well.”

NEW TIMES
Tiempo Libre Helps Give Café Bustelo a New Face
By Christopher Lopez in Free Music, News Wednesday, Apr. 22 2009 @ 12:53PM

Caf Bustelo's iconic can is getting a makeover. That's right, the instantly recognizable red and yellow facade that cafecito drinkers have groped for first thing in the bleary-eyed morning for the past 80 years will look somewhat different as the recently unveiled cans begin to pop up around the country. Don't fret though; the basic look will be the same, just improved upon by the added image of one of Miami's best bands -- Tiempo Libre! It's a match made in heaven, as both can accurately be described as el que se cuela en todas partes.

Since forming in Miami 8 years ago, Tiempo Libre has broken out in a big way, nabbing two consecutive Grammy nods for Arroz Con Mango and Lo Que Esperabas along the way. They recently signed to Sony Masterworks, who will be releasing their latest record, Bach in Havana. Simply put, the orchestra's modern take on Afro-Cuban roots blended with Latin jazz is second to none. And to whet your appetite for their latest offering, they're giving you a chance to download a track from the album titled "Tu Congo Bach", along with help from Bustelo's parent company, Rowland Coffee Roasters. Head to the java cabana to grab yours.

Athens moves to the beat of Tiempo Libre's 'energy music'
BEACON PHOTO/JEFF SHEPHERD Tiemp Libre vive! — Tiempo Libre brings its high-energy music to DeLand's Athens Theatre April 23 as part of the Daytona Beach International Festival.

By Jeff Shepherd BEACON COLUMNIST Tiempo Libre vive! The seven Cuban musicians of Tiempo Libre were lively indeed at DeLand's Athens Theatre April 23 when they performed as part of the Daytona Beach International Festival. The timba band, Miami-based and twice nominated for Grammys, had many of the 300 or so in the Athens on their feet by the finish of the two-hour show. "It's energy music," said Peter Alexander of DeLand. Lead singer (and lead dancer) Joaquin "El Kid" Díaz moved nonstop. Elvis had nothing on this kid in the pelvis department. "It is so much fun to hear so much percussion," Tom Gilbert of DeLand said. Leandro González played congas and Hilario Bell played drums, and occasionally another band mate would strike some rims and skins. Poly-rhythms abounded. There was much audience participation. Pianist and musical director Jorge Gomez suggested dancing in the aisles would be appropriate. Few if any in the crowd appeared to respond until the encore, but earlier in the concert Díaz invited pairs of dancers to the stage. One couple had the courage to accept his offer. Lianne Fernández, originally from Cuba, and her husband, Wendell Christensen, originally from Iowa, cut a rug. They performed as if they had rehearsed. After the show they assured me their act was impromptu. "I was born in Cuba and left when I was a baby," Fernández said. "Listening to their music brought back many wonderful memories of great sounds, great times, and great parties, too! Tiempo Libre was wonderful!"

Many in the crowd were also impelled to sing along with the band on "Guantanamera" ("the girl from Guantánamo"). Diaz asked the audience to respond to his call of "kikiribu" by singing "mandinga," which they did. Kikiribu is a Cuban lyrical expression with no specific meaning, used for its sound and its rhythm, like a scat singer would use "oopbopshbam," according to Adriana Collado. After the show, I interviewed Cuban-born Collado, who is a copy editor for the Spanishlanguage newspaper El Sentinel. According to Collado, Mandinga is an ethnic African group whose song forms were interwoven in Cuban music, in part through slave trade. Tiempo Libre's songs were all in Spanish. If you closed your eyes, you would think you were at a block party in Little Havana. According to Gomez, that is what the songs are all about. "How we live in the U.S., the food, the society, and that we never forget where we come from," Gomez said. Also featured in Tiempo Libre are Cristobal Ferrer Garcia on trumpet, Tebelio "Tony" Fonte on bass, and Luis Beltran Castillo on saxophone and flute.