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The new Juan Valdez, Carlos Casteñada, with farmers

Inside the Coffee Renaissance in Colombia

The South American giant is starting to enjoy the fruits of its labor. A dispatch from the increasingly lively Colombian coffee scene.

On a Saturday afternoon in Bogotá’s upscale Parque de la 93 neighborhood, a line of people extends out the front door of the country's first Starbucks. The cafe, a three floor, 2,700-square-foot space, opened just last month and is an impressive celebration of Colombian coffee. It’s the first Starbucks in the world to serve only locally sourced beans, offered in five varieties. A 19-foot mural, painted in coffee pigment and acrylic by Colombian artist Luis Carlos Cifuentes, depicts the brand’s Siren mermaid, swimming underneath the first shipment of Colombian coffee that the company ordered in 1971.

Juan Valdez, portrayed by Carlos Casteñada. The "new" Juan Valdez, chosen in 2006 to lead the brand after Carlos Sanchez had to retire.

On the other side of the park, about 200 meters away, patrons file into Juan Valdez, the coffee shop of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation. The store—one of 185 Juan Valdez Cafes in the country—feels strangely like a Starbucks. A map of the country’s coffee producing regions and traditional artisan goods for sale add hints of local flavor. And customers are served by baricultores, an invented word that mixes barista with caficultor, Spanish for coffee grower.

Public opinion on Starbucks’ arrival is decidedly mixed, with many people resistant to an American company serving Colombia its own proudest export. “I am Colombian,” says Mariana Acevedo, a director at a television sales company, who sits at Juan Valdez. “So why would I go to Starbucks?” But others are eager to see what competition brings, including the executives behind Juan Valdez. "I know Starbucks is going to do well here," says Alejandra Londoño, Juan Valdez’s VP of international marketing. "But I think there is room for all of us in the category to grow."

Starbucks being Starbucks, this one flagship is just the beginning of its plans for Colombia. It will soon be everywhere, with plans to open 50 stores and hire 1,000 employees across the country over the next five years. Juan Valdez has responded with its own ambitious plans to expand into new international markets as well as better serve the growing Colombian middle class that is coming to appreciate its homegrown coffee for its flavor rather than just as its country’s best export crop. That makes Colombia a fascinating flash point in the drive to get more people around the world to drink better coffee.

More than a decade before a mermaid escorted Colombian coffee beans to the United States, a humble and mustachioed coffee farmer and his mule “Conchita” put Colombia’s coffee on the map. Juan Valdez, played by coffee farmer Carlos Sanchez, began appearing internationally in advertisements on TV and in print in 1959 in an attempt to increase the profile of Colombian coffee around the world. He appeared everywhere from The Today Show to Laverne and Shirley to the U.S. Open, always sharing the message of Colombian coffee on behalf of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation.

And it worked. By the 1980s, the ingredient brand, designed by the legendary advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (whose work made icons of Volkswagen and Mikey from Life Cereal), was one of the most recognized icons in the world. Colombia’s handpicked Arabica beans, grown at high altitude on cool, shaded mountain slopes, earned premiums in international markets, especially in the United States.

But by the late 1990s, the price of coffee had plummeted around the world and Colombian coffee approached commodity status. To protect farmers, the Federation announced in 2002 that it would create a private company, called Procafecol, to manage consumer-facing initiatives, including a foray into cafes. The company would buy its coffee from the Federation’s more than 500,000 members and pay royalties to a National Coffee Fund to use the Juan Valdez brand. (The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation is Procafecol’s largest shareholder, but more than 18,000 individual coffee growers have invested in the company. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation holds additional shares.)

Later that year, when the ribbon was cut on the first Juan Valdez Cafe in Bogota’s international airport, many Colombians didn’t know their own national coffee farmer, Juan Valdez. Most were used to drinking black, bitter coffee, known here as tinto, which is made from low-quality beans. And Colombians consumed coffee at home, not in cafes. The cafes, though, were a great success, and by June 2004 there were 11 of them around the country, convincing locals to trade “reheated tinto for a sophisticated line of products and preparations,” as Gabriel Silva Luján, the former head of the Federation and Colombia’s former ambassador to the U.S., wrote recently in an op-ed, titled “Welcome, Starbucks.”

International expansion began soon after, with shops in Washington, D.C., and New York. The goal was largely to mimic modern, American-style coffee shops, like Starbucks. Between 2006 and 2008, Procafecol opened more than 100 stores around the world, many in high-profile (and pricey) locations like Times Square.

Even with the familiar face of Juan Valdez at the helm, the company's attempt at international coffee shops tumbled. Compounded by the financial crisis, many cafes, including the Times Square location, were forced to close. “We have learned a lot in the last 10 years,” Londoño admits. “We now know we have to be flexible in outside markets, but not so much that we lose our identity. We missed the best part of our story—the authenticity.”

That story is now at the crux of Juan Valdez’s expansion plans.

In downtown Miami, a new Juan Valdez cafe feels like a slice of Colombia: traditional floor tiling, warm wood details, woven baskets, fresh arepas, and pictures of Colombia and its coffee. A poster of a smiling coffee farmer hangs near the entrance, greeting customers with the company’s key new message: “Carlos is one of the 500,000 coffee growers who owns this coffee shop.”

New Miami store interior

“Outside of the country, you have to be more bold, more different,” Londoño says. “We had the story before, but we didn’t know how to bring it to life. Now we know that our heritage is very positive for us and resonates with consumers.”

With that model, Londoño says the company, which currently operates 280 cafes in 15 countries, plans to boost that number to more than 500 over the next decade. In the past two years, Juan Valdez cafes opened in Kuwait, Malaysia, and South Korea. By the end of 2014, additional stores will debut in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Bolivia, and the United States. That is a source of pride for many farmers. “I’ve always said that Juan Valdez is what identifies us in Colombia,” says Javier San Juan, a longtime coffee producer in Huila, in southwest Colombia. “As a producer, I can proudly say Juan Valdez is for the world.”

Meanwhile, Starbucks is expanding not only its cafes but also its own relationships with Colombian coffee farmers. Last summer, the company announced a public-private partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development to invest $3 million to increase Colombian coffee yields. That’s following up on a Farmer Support Center that it opened here in 2012, “to deliver training and agronomy support to Colombian coffee farmers.”

Colombia is now the world’s third largest producer of coffee, after Brazil and Vietnam. It’s number one for specialty coffee. But sadly, good Colombian coffee is still more common in the U.S. than in Bogotá. Of the 11.4 million 135-pound bags of coffee produced in the last 12 months, 10.6 million were exported. In 2012, 80% of coffee consumed in Colombia was imported, principally from Ecuador and Peru.

Colombians, like so many Americans who enjoy coffee from their local “third-wave” shop, are starting to learn to appreciate the experience of a premium cup of coffee. “In Colombia, Juan Valdez has created the idea of the ‘third place,’ just like Starbucks did in the U.S.,” says Jaime Duque, formerly an agricultural engineer for the Federation and now a specialty coffee provider and founder of the just-opened Catación Publica (“Public Cupping”) cafe. “Now we’ve got a great opportunity to open Colombians’ eyes to what a very special cup of coffee looks like, from right here in Colombia.”

Across the city, a number of small specialty coffee shops have begun to appear, focused on talking about—and tasting—coffee’s origins. The founders of Azahar Coffee came to Colombia from the United States a few years ago with the intention to mill coffee from the best farmers and export it abroad. But when they saw the poor quality of coffee consumed in the country, they revised their business plan, and now sell coffee to different cafés and restaurants in Colombia. Juan Valdez is also looking to push further into Colombia’s premium coffee market. In Bogotá’s exclusive Zona G neighborhood, a three-floor “Origins” concept cafe opened late last year introduces customers to the country’s coffee regions and the range of preparation methods.

Inside of the Juan Valdez "Origins" specialty cafe

Duque’s new shop features a coffee lab and the full range of preparation methods. He says consumers should learn to think of coffee in Colombia like others think of wine in some parts of the world: an opportunity to know the type of plant and its year and origin. “Coffee has a lot of stories to tell us,” he says.

"I'm glad for Starbucks, and everything that’s happening in coffee here right now,” Duque says. “We need this in Colombia.”

Jessica Weiss is a freelance writer based in Bogota, Colombia

Keep up with #coffeeweek at Fast Company

[Images courtesy of Juan Valdez]

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5 Comments

  • pirilu23

    I found this articles hard to follow and confusing; first time I´ve encountered this problem on this website. The author or editor (both really), should be careful when writing about numbers and dates and try to not make the numbers tangle the sentences.

  • Devon Nullz

    Whatever copy editor who wrote your headline was unfortunately a bit misleading. Colombia has had a lot of outstanding coffee as a producer, but this article is really about retailers.

    That said, I wish an American could be allowed to write about foreign coffee cultures without always first holding them up to the Starbucks "gold standard" -- as if the US has everything to teach the rest of the ignorant world about coffee culture. It's more than a little ethnocentric.

  • Sebs Azar

    There is a Colombian culture on Coffee production, but no Coffee consuption. Hopefully Colombians will learn about brewing and types of Coffees with time.