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Fresh Cup Files: Interview Jesse Sweeney of Caffe Umbria

The March issue of Fresh Cup Magazine has been published and is available on their website as well as printed form. F+B’s own Jake Leonti has an article in this issue deconstructing an effective sales strategy. The article focuses on wholesale accounts for coffee roasters however the principals are universal. F+B reached out to a few of the best coffee companies in the country and interviewed their leaders in sales to learn how they were able to grow there companies so effectively.

Left to Right: Roaster Emanuele Bizzari, Partner Pasquale Madeddu, Partner Jesse Sweeney

Left to Right: Roaster Emanuele Bizzarri, Partner Pasquale Madeddu, Partner Jesse Sweeney

Jesse Sweeney of Caffe Umbria in Seattle is a founding partner in the company as well the man responsible for sales growth in Seattle, Canada, New York and Las Vegas. Jesse was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his hectic schedule to share Caffe Umbria’s core values and part of what makes them a success.

F+B: What are the core values of your roasting company?

Jesse Sweeney: We (Caffe Umbria) consider ourselves a to uphold the standards that were created and perfected in Italy. We feel a certain obligation to carry on those standards without being completely tied to the path or unable to change. We all share a true appreciation for those Italian traditions. We strive to protect and carry those traditions forward in our little world, which started in Seattle but has grown since. I realize we’re not the only ones doing that but we feel we have a strong niche that has developed over the last 20 years. Through our relationships and the quality of our coffee, first, through Torrefazione Italia and now at Caffe Umbria.

F+B: How long have you been the head of sales?

JS: I share that with Pasquale. There are three of us that started CU. Pasquale Madeddu, myself and Emanuele Bizzarri. We have divided up sales territories. I cover Seattle, Canada, NY, Vegas, Pasquale is Oregon, CA, Chicago. A lot is the relationships we had already. I had worked in Canada previously so it made sense.

F+B: Did you have a sales background first or coffee?

JS: A little bit of both. I Started at ground level. Quality assurance rep for TI. It was a new position and I was in charge of visiting wholesale customers and insuring TI’s standards were being upheld by and for customers. Equipment maintenance, staff training, adjusting grinders, gaskettes, delivering coffee. I learned about both sales and coffee simultaneously. I had worked in the restaurant industry for years throughout college, waiting tables.

Beautiful Cafe in Pioneer Sq. Seattle

Beautiful Cafe in Pioneer Sq. Seattle

When I first got involved in coffee, some people I worked with created “Sip of Seattle” a pocket guide book for cafes in Seattle. I helped with content of the book. We were sipping coffee, talking to cafe owners. It gave me a chance to learn about different coffees and meet different roasters. My favorite one was TI and I had sold them advertising for the book. I got to know them and then jumped at the chance when I saw they were hiring. “Sip of Seattle” ended up selling 20,000 copies that year. around 1990

F+B: Do you use the lighthouse customer approach?

JS: We do. We focus on 4 main channels: restaurant, fine dining, coffee house / bakery, hotel / resort. Then gourmet grocery store for retail. We go after the top 10% within each market. Our goal is to have the top 4% of each segment. We are not just a fine dining coffee or just a grocery store coffee. By being in all of these you get the prestige from the fine dining and then volume from cafes and shelf presence from grocery.

Fine dining is awesome. Its great to work with James Beard award winners but they don’t pay the bills. There is a great bakery cafe in the market (Macrina Bakery) doing 200lbs. a week.

Macrina Bakery, bread and butter customer.

Macrina Bakery, bread and butter customer.

F+B: What are the basic essentials that you look for in a lighthouse client?

JS: If it’s the type of account that we are going to talk about publicly. We want the brand to have some good continuity in our customer base. Say, Bellagio Hotel in Vegas. It already has an Italian theme, it’s well known, high volume. They are known for quality in a lot of different ways.

F+B: Has this method yielded results? Has it gotten you more customers?

JS: Definitely. Anytime we go into a new market like in Canada for example. We have been in Vancouver for a while but now we’re going into Calgary. So we were really looking to get one of those lighthouse customers. Char Cut Roast House was perfect. Chef John Jackson was named best chef in Canada. That is an important first step for us.

This way, our rep can communicate to others “chef so and so is using our coffee” that gives instant credibility. As a sales person you carry all these different sales sheets, pricing sheets, etc. I know the one that stops them is the client list. You see barriers break down when business owners see people they respect on your list.

It’s like being introduced by a mutual friend and you break through that first wall.

F+B: How do you get the most leverage our of these relationships?

JS: We’ve done various things, adds in La Cucina Italiana featuring different chefs or restaurant owners in the add. Adds featuring new accounts, social media about people working with the chef or their fund raisers . We could probably do more to promote those relationships to be honest. But our sales people are always talking about our customers. Word of mouth is the unquantifiiable tool in our indsustry.

F+B: How do you return the favor to your customers?

JS: I don’t have a formal program for that. If one of our customers is doing something interesting we will use our social media tools to promote that even if it doesn’t have to do with us. In our adds, the chefs were happy to have their name and image in print. The important thing is to always to make it mutual beneficial for everyone. Most of our relationships are so good that they are just happy to help promote us.

F+B: What is one of your biggest lighthouse customers?

JS: Canada, Wickaninnish Inn. Independent four star inn. Non-corporate, independent resorts that is not solely money driven but looking for the best guest experience they can provide. They’re always in the top one or two resorts in Canada. We do coffee in the restaurant, cafe, and in-room, every representation.

That is an ideal account, penetrating multiple platforms and channels in one location with known chefs. Real destination location such as Fairmont Hotels like Chateau Whistler, Parker Palm Springs.

Chateau Whistler - home of great coffee.

Chateau Whistler – home of great coffee.

F+B: Are your lighthouse customers also your biggest volume?

JS: Sometimes, but not necessarily. Some of the James Beard winning chefs we work with are some of our smallest customers in terms of volume. Chefs like Matt Dillon at Sitka & Spruce, they’re great chefs and we love working with them however, they don’t go through a large volume of coffee. Certainly, he’s a great reference.

F+B: Do you end up spending more time with these “name” clients than less known customers?

JS: Actually, no. I don’t think we play favorites. In general no, we treat all our customers equally. Of course, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. but we have some great customers that never even ask for anything and you wish they would so we could spend more time with them.

F+B: If you were to start a new company tomorrow, would you employ this same strategy?

JS: I think I would. I think it would depend on what the philosophy of the company was. If we started something based on single origin and alternative brew methods then I think we would have to adjust our strategy. Going after the subjective upper tier of whatever segment you’re going after.

F+B: Do you maintain qualifications for your customer base?

JS: We work with a number of high end sophisticated, Europeans but a lot of our best customers are just looking for a great product that compliments what they are doing: baking, cooking, indie gourmet grocer. There’s not a blue print for what that customer looks like.

The only qualifications are for people who want to serve great coffee and have a great relationship with their roaster. Certain people you like working with and others you tend to avoid. We’re in the fortunate situation that we don’t have to say yes to everyone.

Roasting Works in Seattle

Torrefazione in Seattle

F+B: Do you Feel any pressure to change your style with the emergence and popularity of the 3rd wave?

JS: There is an open mindedness about exploring new coffees and preparation styles. Our core will never change. We will alwys be someone that specializes in blending and carrying on those Italian traditions. We belong to a group called the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano. An organization in Italy that certifies our coffees Italiano. like the DOC but, for coffee. We have gone through their corses and attended seiminars in Italy and they have come here and our espresso meets their guidlines for a true espresso Italiano.

F+B: What is your favorite espresso out there other than Caffe Umbria? JS: La Colombe. I have always had a lot of respect for those guys. Recently though, during a visit to NY, I tried one at Toby’s Estate and found it to be very good.

F+B: Favorite Vegetarian restaurant? JS: Shanick in Seattle. Indian, they serve meat but mostly veggies. In Vancouver, Vij’s.

F+B: What was your New Years Resolution in January? JS: We just celebrated ten years at Caffe Umbria with updates in our branding and we’re excited for the next ten.

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