Mr. Espresso

Now That’s Italian

Carlo Di Ruocco loves a good cup of espresso, a drink he grew up with in Salerno, Italy.
Founder, president and chief executive officer of Mr. Espresso coffee, he is known to the Bay Area coffee community as Mr. Espresso, a pioneer and immigrant success story who built a family coffee business one espresso at a time over the past 32 years.
His goal from the start was to bring good Italian espresso to the Bay Area because he couldn’t find good espresso here. “Coffee should be comforting and give you a boost. That’s the Italian tradition,” says Di Ruocco. He’s a tall, dignified man who speaks English with a Salerno accent and frequently uses his hands when he talks.
Inside the company’s showroom at its Oakland plant on Third Street, there are many reminders of the company and Di Ruocco milestones along the way. It’s a warm and welcoming atmosphere, where customers and friends come to talk and do business, often over an espresso drink served up on the bar from the shiny espresso machine by Di Ruocco or one of the other five family members who work full time in the business. Mr. Espresso sells and services espresso machines and roasted coffee beans, something unique in the Bay Area coffee industry. While at the showroom, customers can buy a brand new or renovated commercial or home espresso machine or grinder, or they can pick up a bag of one of the company’s special coffee blends such as fair trade/organic or its eponymous espresso, Espresso Di Carlo.
The young Carlo Di Ruocco came to his interest in coffee naturally. His uncle was a soldier in Albania during World War II and would bring home coffee beans. “My mom would allow us to roast beans when I was 8 or 9 years old,” says Di Ruocco.
But he burned some batches of beans several times. “They came out charcoal. My mother said, ‘You’re not allowed to roast anymore,’ ” he recalls.
Born in 1934, Di Ruocco had a difficult childhood before and during World War II, growing up during Mussolini’s fascist regime. His father died when he was 2 years old. His mother worked long hours to support her seven children, but they were poor. “We didn’t eat for weeks at a time before and during the war. I was the oldest at home and used to go out and ask German soldiers for food,” he recalls.
German soldiers saved his life from machine gun fire several times. As an 8-year-old boy, standing in his back yard, he saw the United States bomb Salerno in June 1943. “We thought America was good and would bring us freedom and food, but U.S. soldiers caused f more problems than the Germans for Italian civilians,” says Di Ruocco.
Di Ruocco survived the war and grew up in post-war Italy thinking about coffee and roasting beans while drinking lots of coffee. He remembers going to coffee bars with friends in the 1950s. “It was 10 cents a cup,” he says.
In the early 1950s, he went to work for Nestler Coffee Roasting Plant in his hometown as a coffee roaster. The master roaster taught him to roast beans by oak wood fire using seasoned oak, a technique that he would borrow for his own business 30 years later.
Di Ruocco’s coffee career was interrupted for a time when he worked from 1955 to 1960 as an electrician for the Italian Electric Company. He met and married his French wife, Marie-Françoise, and they moved to Paris in 1960, where he worked as an elevator mechanic. There, their children John and Laurence (Laura) were born. Another, Luigi, was born after they moved to the states.
Di Ruocco originally came to the Bay Area with his family at the suggestion of his older brother, Franco, who lived in Oakland and owned a successful Italian restaurant, the Villanova.
The family came by boat in 1967 because Di Ruocco wanted to cross the Atlantic Ocean and see the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor as so many Italian immigrants had done before him. “We stood in line at customs for eight hours and there was a hotel strike. We bought a ticket on TWA and came to Oakland. We didn’t speak much English,” he says.
They left after three years, but returned in 1974, settling in Alameda, first in an apartment and later in a condominium they bought on Bay Farm Island. Di Ruocco worked as an elevator repairman in San Francisco and later got his contractor’s license. Always mechanically inclined, he dabbled in fixing espresso machines for cafes in San Francisco’s North Beach in his spare time.
Di Ruocco and his wife, who both loved good food, often tossed around the idea of opening a café or restaurant. They didn’t know it, but their future would be coffee.

After realizing there was no good espresso in San Francisco or the Bay Area, Di Ruocco decided to do something about it on a trip home to Italy in 1977.
He began by importing and selling espresso machines in 1978. He needed a name for his new company. “There was Mr. Coffee, Joe DiMaggio, so I thought I’ll try Mr. Espresso,” says Di Ruocco. The name stuck and customers came to know him as Mr. Espresso.
He’d work before or after his day job as an elevator technician installing and fixing coffee machines. Since he was doing espresso for fun, it wasn’t such a leap for him to go from fixing elevators to selling, installing and fixing coffee machines. He ran the business out of their condominium, something that his wife didn’t always relish.
Naturally, Di Ruocco wanted to roast and sell coffee beans, too. He would experiment with roasting beans in his own kitchen, which sometimes left a burnt odor in the air. He also went back to Salerno to relearn and study how to roast coffee. “It takes years to learn the business. When you think you know everything, you have to learn it all over again,” says Di Ruocco.
In 1980, he officially began commercial roasting in tiny batches. In those early years, there were only three or four places in Berkeley and North Beach to get espresso and few Bay Area residents had tasted espresso. “People’s initial reaction was I was serving mud, not coffee,” says Di Ruocco.
In 1982, he climbed out of his last elevator shaft and undertook the coffee business full time. He’d been selling one to two machines a month initially and was up to 22 by 1982, which included their installation, maintenance and customer training.
“I couldn’t do both the elevator and coffee business anymore,” says Di Ruocco, who found he liked being his own boss. “I could decide
what I wanted to do and did it.”
The company had three employees then: Di Ruocco, his wife and son John, age 15. Di Ruocco was in charge of roasting, sales and repair of espresso machines, while son John helped repair machines, and Mrs. Di Ruocco delivered coffee in the family car. She was joined by youngest son Luigi, 6, who would help her deliver bags of coffee beans to customers. Daughter Laurence typed company brochures at the family’s kitchen table.
Mrs. Di Ruocco, the company’s chief financial officer today, says the company’s early years were demanding. “I wanted more kids, but with the business, three was enough,” she says. “We would only get five hours of sleep a night. It was very busy.”
And the business grew from there, as did the specialty coffee industry in general. Eventually, Di Ruocco moved the company to a ware­house on East Seventh Street in Oakland.

One key thing Di Ruocco decided to do was to roast his beans by oak wood fire, the technique he’d learned in Salerno, a very natural choice for him that reaped great rewards for the business. It made Mr. Espresso’s coffee taste unique and attracted many Bay Area restaurateurs who’d become East Bay and world-renowned institutions.
Alice Waters of Chez Panisse was one. “She tested my coffee and liked it,” says Di Ruocco.
Bob Klein of Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland was another who liked the flavor of Di Ruocco’s coffee. Klein has been a customer of Mr. Espresso for 24 years, except for the three years when he defected to a competitor, but then returned. “The coffee is very consistent. They have the best espresso,” he says.
But Klein isn’t just a fan of the coffee; he swears by the company’s imported espresso machines, too. Some of the machines are new while others are models Di Ruocco and staff acquire and rebuild from the early 1960s, the golden age of espresso machines. After Klein bought an E61 model for the restaurant, he added one for his house, too. “Once you get an E61 in your blood, you can’t live without it,” he says.
There is an Old World nature to the way Di Ruocco does business, says Klein, who calls Mr. Espresso an important East Bay business. “I like the way he does business. In everything that Carlo does, he has a clear idea of what he wants to do,” says Klein.
Klein says the fine wine and food culture of Di Ruocco’s Italy all comes from utter poverty. “It shapes the way they behave and do things and their sense of aesthetic. Things must look and taste right,” he says.
Alameda artist Darrell Burson first met Di Ruocco in 1982 at a restaurant in Berkeley when Di Ruocco was installing an espresso machine and Burson was painting illustrations for the interior. About a year later, Di Ruocco called him up and said he was now in the roasting business, too. “He told me, ‘I need a bag,’ ” says Burson.
Di Ruocco had definite design ideas for a logo on the bag, which included a human figure with a coffee bean head. “He brought in some initial drawings and we worked from there,” says Burson.
It evolved over a few years, but the distinct logo of a dandy looking man — with a coffee bean for a head, a monocle in one eye and a mustache — dressed in a tuxedo and holding a cup of coffee with the Italian flag as a backdrop became the company’s identity. “The mustache especially denoted a distinguished gentleman of a previous generation, a concept perhaps not fully understood by Americans but very meaningful to him,” says Burson.
Like many people, Burson vividly remembers the first espresso Di Ruocco made him when he visited the plant for the first time. “It sat on your tongue and then blossomed. I’d had espressos before, but it was like brown velvet. I thought, ‘This is why they call him Mr. Espresso,’ ” he says.
In 1985, the family opened a showroom in Alameda at 1902 Encinal Ave., where they sold machines and coffee. Mrs. Di Ruocco ran it with help of children John, Laurence and Luigi, who would come and help after school. In 1990, they closed the showroom and moved the entire operation to its current location on Third Street, just a few blocks from Oakland’s Jack London Square.

Today, Luigi Di Ruocco, 33, the only Di Ruocco born in Alameda, is the vice president of sales and director of marketing for Mr. Espresso. If his father represents the Old World of Italy, Luigi Di Ruocco stands as the next generation eager to take the company into the future. He, along with John Di Ruocco, have marketed the company more aggressively and made the company’s operations more open to the general public. He’s revamped the website, started a blog and is trying to raise the company’s profile.
Unlike his two siblings, it was never a certainty he would work in the family business. “I wasn’t all that interested in the company when I was growing up. Throughout college, I wanted to go out and work on my own. After school, I went and worked for Barclays Global Investors. The glory of working for a corporate world wasn’t that great and began to lose its appeal,” he says.
Luigi Di Ruocco likes to explain the Italian tradition of coffee and that the ubiquitous latte isn’t an Italian drink and is a drink his father helped pioneer with one of his original customers, Caffe Mediterranean in Berkeley. “The latte was born at Café Med as customers kept asking for more milk in their espresso,” he says.
“I worked hard to formulate an espresso that worked with coffee and milk,” says the elder Di Ruocco.
Luigi Di Ruocco says the market has developed so much that people want to know how to make the best cup of coffee, and the company offers classes to customers on how to do it. “It’s a culinary art. You’re working with food,” he says.
It’s a distinction not everyone would make in the industry, but an important one for Luigi Di Ruocco and the Di Ruocco family members who are dedicated to making subtle, buoyant espresso drinks that come straight from the coffee bars of Italy and flavorful regular coffees, not super-sized mochas and lattes or syrupy, double-shot single espressos that hammer you over the head.
Luigi Di Ruocco says the company seeks balance. “We want to be a modern Italian company but also remain true to our traditions with an eye on the future and respect for the past,” he says.
Luigi Di Ruocco acknowledges Mr. Espresso faces a challenge from upstart roasters such as its Oakland neighbor Blue Bottle Coffee and Four Barrel in San Francisco. Blue Bottle even stole Mr. Espresso’s famous Berkeley customer, Chez Panisse.
Luigi Di Ruocco takes the loss of such a high-profile and longtime customer in stride. “Competition is a good thing and our business has been stable. We have a loyal customer base and a good niche,” he says.
But as they’ve lost some old customers, they gain new ones, such as Megan Hume and her husband, James, who opened Alameda’s Blue Dot Café on Encinal Avenue in 2008. They searched all over for good coffee to serve. Then they walked into the Mr. Espresso’s Oakland facility. “We were impressed by the operation. The atmosphere was great. Every member of the family was involved in the business in some way,” she says. “They taste every batch of roasted beans. The whole process was so amazing. They had so much passion.”
Besides the fact that she gets her freshly roasted beans within a day or two of her order, Hume says that the flavor profile is consistent. But the final dealmaker for Hume was that Mr. Espresso was local. “They live in Alameda and that was it. Their first store was in the same building as our store,” she says.
Another longtime customer of Mr. Espresso is Nicola Rivieccio, proprietor of Berkeley’s new Pane Italiano Qualita (PIQ), an Italian food shop. Inside, PIQ looks like a Mr. Espresso franchise store. Not only does PIQ carry Mr. Espresso coffee, it’s got a large, gleaming E61 espresso machine, a grinder, Mr. Espresso coffee cups, posters and a clock on its walls.
Rivieccio arrived in the Bay Area from Naples in 1976 and, like Carlo Di Ruocco, couldn’t find a good cup of Italian espresso. It was culture shock. “People here don’t understand the Italian coffee culture. It’s in our DNA. People meet friends on the street in Italy and go in to a coffee bar and have an espresso. This happens five times a day,” he says.
Rivieccio worked for and owned many different Bay Area restaurants, but has never used any other coffee except Mr. Espresso in nearly 30 years. “Carlo has the highest quality beans and knows how to roast beans the Italian way. I’d put it up against any coffee. It’s the best coffee in the United States,” he says.
Carlo Di Ruocco will talk at length about the coffee business and his personal history, but he doesn’t like to reveal the company’s annual revenue. (Dun and Bradstreet estimate Mr. Espresso has $3.4 million in annual sales.) He will acknowledge the competition in the coffee business has gotten much tougher, though. “Our margins are very small now,” he says. The company’s niche business is restaurants, cafés and coffeehouses. They also sell beans on their website and at the Berkeley Bowl stores.

John Di Ruocco, Carlo’s oldest son, is the company’s green coffee buyer and quality control supervisor. John Di Ruocco
studied architecture at UC Berkeley, but started helping his dad with roasting and never looked back. Mechanically inclined like his father,
he also trouble shoots the company’s two large roasters.
The father and son have seen many changes in the coffee business, including the rise of the specialty coffee industry and the Specialty Coffee Association of America, whose membership has skyrocketed.
Even after 60 years, Carlo Di Ruocco still finds the roasting process fascinating. “The beans are green when you start. They have no flavor or odor,” he says.
John Di Ruocco travels to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala — three countries with strong coffee-growing traditions — in search of the best beans. “The competition has gotten much greater for quality beans,” he says.
Mr. Espresso roasts about one million pounds of beans each year. It has 12 different sources for its beans; 70 percent are regular
and 30 percent are fair trade.
Lately, the industry’s focus has been on improving the quality of roasted beans.
“Fifteen years ago when we started, you could afford to make roasting mistakes, but now the competition is much stiffer, says John Di Ruocco. “Everybody wants a light-roasted coffee that has fruit acids that come through and you can really taste the quality. In darker roasted coffees, most of the flavor is burned out.”
The competition to buy quality Arabica coffee beans has also gotten tougher for Mr. Espresso with more micro-roasters entering the market and vying for beans along with the entrenched big players such as Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee & Tea.
Another big change in the industry was the rise of the fair trade movement and the formation of today’s Fair Trade USA organization in 1998. “We were one of the first to sign up with fair trade in 2000 or 2001,” says John Di Ruocco.
The rise of the fair trade coffee movement has put pressure on roasters such as Mr. Espresso to do the right thing and pay a fixed above-market price for coffee beans to support and sustain coffee farmers. But it isn’t always easy to do since farmers aren’t always anxious to participate in fair trade co-operatives. “I trace the product all the way back to the farmer so I know who I’m dealing with,” says John
Di Ruocco.

The family has lived on Bay Farm Island since 1974, when Carlo and Marie-Françoise Di Ruocco bought a townhouse on Mangrove Lane. “I liked Alameda right away,” says Carlo Di Ruocco. Later they moved into a larger house.
All three Di Ruocco children attended St. Phillip Neri and St. Joseph’s High School and Bay Area colleges.
Laurence and John Di Ruocco remember Bay Farm before it was developed and was still sand dunes and farms. “The Ratto family still
had a vegetable farm there, where the ferry landing is today. We used to spend hours riding our bikes out there,” says Laurence.
Today, Laurence, her husband, Alex Zambrano, who is the equipment buyer and director of warehouse operations for Mr. Espresso, and their three children live on Bay Farm, as do her parents. Her brothers, John and Luigi, live in San Francisco. “We love Alameda,” says Mrs. Di Ruocco.
In their spare time, Carlo and Marie-Françoise Di Ruocco, who’ve been married over half a century, enjoy spending time
with the family, making trips to Italy and attending the opera.
Asked why he has been a successful businessman, Carlo Di Ruocco answers immediately, “I’ve had to work very hard. I had pride in my work. When I worked on elevators, I had to find the cause of the problem. I put more of myself into everything I did,” he says.
At age 76, Carlo Di Ruocco works less now than he used to and spends time working on a Napa winery he owns, but has no intention
of retiring. “It’s not work, because I enjoy it,” he says.
Di Ruocco had many offers to buy the business, but he’s turned them down, wanting to preserve the family company he’s worked 32 years to create. “We’re very lucky to have the business and that the family is together. I think they intend to keep it going for a long time,”
says Di Ruocco.

This article appears in the March-April 2011 issue of Alameda Magazine
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