Volume 6, Number 4, 1997

Bertha's Beans

Bertha Gross, HP '90M, takes her coffee strong and sweet with milk. "As long as I can remember, I've always liked to have a good cup of coffee in the morning, even when I was in high school," she says.

Gross knows superb coffee. As the co-owner of a small, family-run coffee plant near Caracas, Venezuela, she is responsible for all aspects of producing several brands of coffee. She shares these duties with her husband, Salomon Moreno, whose family has operated the firm for more than four decades.

A native of Caracas with a bachelor's in nutrition science from Syracuse University and a master's in food science from Delaware, Gross and her husband, an electrical engineer, returned to Venezuela in the early 1990s, when they began a continuing effort to modernize the family coffee plant, Torrefactora Moreno e Hijos.

"As an emerging economy, Venezuela could offer wide opportunities for small entrepreneurs like us," Gross says. "Our biggest challenge is the still-ongoing reorganization and our new product introduction. We recently changed the image of our best-quality line, and some of our regular customers did not accept those changes easily."

Their plans to grow the company call for targeting a wide list of potential markets-from small, specialized retail stores to trendy cafes and restaurants, from catering companies to large offices. The company's top seller remains unflavored, espresso-quality whole coffee beans, but it's also introduced a line of flavored coffees.

"Flavored coffee in Venezuela is an extremely new idea, and only a small part of the general population knows of its existence," Gross says. "It is a relatively new market and we are trying to exploit it."

While the idea of hazelnut coffee is new, drinking caffeinated brews is an integral part of daily life in Venezuela. Many people will pop into small coffee bars called cafeterias, or taguaras, for a quick cup during the day.

"Coffee is very popular here," Gross says. "It is actually considered a sort of 'staple,' and in the past, the sale price has even been protected by law to ensure accessibility for lower-income households."

But, don't try any substitutes for the caffeine; decaf has not caught on with the Venezuelan public. "I would dare to say that the Venezuelan people are hooked on their typical regular coffee," Gross says.

In recent years, the traditional cafeteria has gained a new competitor, the upscale cafe, creating a new market for the family business.

"Since I came back in 1991, the number of such establishments has increased tremendously as part of a new way of entertainment," Gross explains. "However, people are more interested in the ambience rather than the taste of the coffee itself. In turn, a lot of business owners do not pay much attention to the quality of the coffee they buy, and their coffee-purchasing decisions are mostly based on price and personal contacts.

"I would really like to see more interest in
coffee in a culinary manner, so that tastes and aromas play an important role in the buying process. That is what we are trying to achieve by selling our flavored gourmet line. Up to now, the popularity of coffee has remained fairly constant, and, if people are drinking more, it is just because there are more places where it is served. Nevertheless, we have a tendency of 'Americanizing' a lot of our customs, and, eventually, I expect coffee to become as trendy here as it is in the United States."

While the company's flavors and marketing techniques are changing, the method of manufacturing the coffee is grounded in tradition.

The old-fashioned process relies on manual labor. Usually, the factory purchases green coffee beans from farmer co-ops in the Andean slopes of western Venezuela or from the central and eastern area of the country where coffee also is grown. The coffee then is delivered to the warehouse in Guarenas, about 12 miles east of Caracas, where it is unloaded and stored for later use. Until recently, the green coffee had to be transported in small batches to an off-site roaster, but Gross and her husband have now purchased their own roasting equipment.

"Our roaster is our most precious and recent acquisition," Gross says. "It has the capacity of roasting two green coffee bags (of about 135 pounds each) every 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the roast desired. The roasting time is critical to the flavor and the type of product. A dark roast would be appropriate for Turkish-style coffee, while a Vienna roast requires less time."

The purchase of the roaster is an example of how Gross and her husband have attempted to move the company along with modern methods.

"Twenty years ago, my father-in-law decided that it was more convenient to rent time at other roasters, and decided to sell his," Gross explains. "At that time, it was a good idea because he did not have to worry about maintenance and space. As times changed, the competition grew stronger, and he was left behind. When we took over and increased production, the price was not so cheap for renting anymore, and the inconvenience of transporting the load back and forth forced us to invest in the purchase of a new roaster."

Once the roasting process is complete, the coffee is packed in different sizes under the company's various labels--Mokafe, a gourmet espresso line, and Cafe El Leon, a retail-quality coffee. A small portion of the beans are set aside to have flavors added in a separate process performed in Caracas.

New equipment, new flavors, new marketing strategies--these changes have been necessary for the company to remain competitive. Yet, the younger generation doesn't want to lose the personal touch and high standards set by their predecessors.

"My father-in-law managed it as a small production line that offered personally supervised customer service and good quality. He did not wish to sacrifice that to make it a large corporation," Gross says. "At the present time, we are following that same philosophy, with carefully planned upgrades and small steps to better our image."

Off-hours, Gross spends as much time as she can with her two young daughters, Tami and Lianne.

"If our business continues to thrive, we hope that at least one of them continues our family tradition," she says. "They have been well-exposed to the business when we do tests at home. They love to 'help out,' playing with freshly roasted beans that are brought directly from the plant when a new batch of coffee bushels is tested."

-Robert DiGiacomo, AS '88