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Tue November 5, 2013
Cafe Pilon: From Door-To-Door Peddling To The American Dream
Cuban coffee -- in white styrofoam containers, its brown liquid leaking through the lid, accompanied by tall stacks of thimble-like cups -- is everywhere in Miami.
If you talk to the drinkers at small cafeteria windows called "ventanitas," the older Cubans will say you’re not Cuban if you don’t drink the coffee. To round out the traditional Cuban look, they pair a cup with a white guayabera button-down shirt.
Although, today you'll also find young non-Cubans who are equally devoted to the drink, such as Caylee Otto, a 26-year-old from Pittsburgh.
“I compared Cuban coffee, when I first moved here, to crack,” she said. “I hated my job and this guy was like, ‘Hey, do you want some Cuban coffee?’ I had one shot of it and had the best day of work ever. I had it every day after that.”
Otto probably drank Cafe Pilon or Cafe Bustelo that day. Those are two of the biggest coffee brands to make it into the tiny cups.
The coffee is Cuban by name, but it has taken on a whole new life in the U.S., like Chinese food or pizza. For one, you might be surprised to know that Bustelo was actually founded in the Bronx.
Pilon, though, did start in Cuba. It was the competitor of a brand called Souto Brothers Coffee. The owners of the two brands fled Cuba for Miami during the revolution.
In the early 1960s, the Souto family, which had been in the coffee business since the late 1800s, bought out Pilon and started selling coffee under that name.
Jose Souto, the oldest son, used to go to classes at the University of Miami in the morning, and to do his part for the family business, sold coffee door-to-door out of his VW bug in the afternoon.
“It smelled terrible, and the smell will not go away. That was the same car that I used to go dating so it was a tough situation,” he said.
Although door-to-door salesmen are an uncommon sight today, roughly 50 years ago, basic necessities such as milk were also peddled that way. For the Soutos, it was the best way to distribute their coffee.
At the time, the Cuban population in Miami was relatively small, so selling Pilon at big grocery stores was almost impossible. But even after a decade of growth in the Cuban population, the Soutos still struggled.
Sitting in the office of a Winn-Dixie buyer in the early 1970s, Souto was realizing how bad things were for the business.
“I [told the buyer] we bought Pilon and he said, ‘Oh, don’t tell me you bought that. That doesn't sell. As a matter of fact, I’m ready to discontinue the brand from the stores because the sales aren’t there'," Souto recalled.
That moment was a crossroads for Pilon, and really, many of the Cuban coffee brands we know today.
Around that time, the Souto family stockpiled a bunch of coffee. Soon after, coffee prices skyrocketed due to a winter freeze in Brazil that killed much of the coffee crops.
The price flux hit other companies hard, and the Soutos were able to start buying up their competitors, such as Cafe Estrella and Cafe Dial. The feather in their cap came in 2000, when the Soutos bought Bustelo from British company Tetley Tea.
“We were in seventh heaven,” Souto said.
Over time, Cuban coffee had made its way into life beyond Cuba and even Little Havana. Miami, as a whole, embraced the sweet elixir as part of what makes the city run: the late nights, the clubbing, and the 24-7 work schedules.
“When my friends come into town, we go and get cuban coffee," Caylee Otto said. "[We] have it before we [go] out and not get home until 4 a.m. and be just fine."
Puerto Ricans in New York also embrace it. And a cursory look adds North Carolina, Colorado, Nebraska and even tiny Barre, Vermont to the growing list of places where the island's ambrosia is drunk.
The value of Cuban coffee in America was cemented when the Soutos were approached by the J.M. Smucker Company in 2011. The Souto family, whose name was synonymous with coffee back in Cuba, sold its empire to the Midwesterners for $360 million.
“It feels like we accomplished the American dream, and that's the most-important thing,” Souto said. “We came in, we worked hard and we felt we did it. ... This is what it's all about.”
It wasn’t just the Soutos who accomplished the American dream. Pilon took part in that red, white, and blue story. The brand now rubs elbows with fellow Smucker’s products Jiff Peanut Butter, Crisco, and Pillsbury.
It makes sense for Pilon to be on shelves those other products. Cuban coffee has become American coffee.
Although, maybe not for Jose Souto anymore: A year ago, because of a sleeping problem, Jose’s doctor told him he can no longer drink coffee.
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