The Sprudge Executive Interview is a new feature series on Sprudge, featuring face-to-face longform interviews with founders, CEOs, and executives across the specialty coffee industry. These are candid looks at the inside story of coffee leaders around the world. In 2020 the program will expand to include a monthly podcast presentation, part of an expanded podcast platform on Sprudge Media Network.
Today’s featured guest on the Sprudge Executive Interview—our first—is Guido Bernardinelli, the CEO of La Marzocco International. The La Marzocco brand was founded in Florence, Italy by the Bambi brothers, Giuseppe and Bruno, in 1927. Over the last several decades it has become synonymous with the growth of specialty coffee culture worldwide, most notably under the tenure of departing CEO Kent Bakke. Bernardinelli joined the company in 2002 in a sales capacity, helping guide the brand through a phase of international growth from its marketing and logistics hub in Milan. He rose to the rank of Managing Director in 2009, and in 2018 was appointed CEO by the company’s international board of directors.
We interviewed Bernardinelli on the eve of launching Accademia del Caffè Espresso, a global education and innovation center dedicated to specialty coffee housed in the company’s midcentury factory headquarters high above Florence. Our conversation took place immediately following the 2019 HOST exhibition in Milan, at which La Marzocco debuted a range of products and prototypes including the brand’s first foray into grinder design, an unusual new automatic milk frother, and updated versions of the brand’s iconic Strada and GB5 espresso machines.
As with all interviews in the Sprudge Executive Interview series, Mr. Bernardinelli is interviewed by Sprudge co-founder Jordan Michelman, with photos by Sprudge co-founder Zachary Carlsen. This interview and accompanying photoshoot was conducted at Accademia del Caffè Espresso in Florence, Italy, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hello Guido Bernardinelli, and thank you very much for sitting with us today for the Sprudge Executive Interview. You’ve just finished HOST 2019 in Milan, and tomorrow you will help launch the new Accademia project. But here now, today—what is your frame of mind?
It’s a crazy week—one of the most memorable weeks of our lives, all at once. We had wonderful meetings in Milan with our partners and investors—and maybe our most successful show in our history. We divided our booth into two sides for innovation and lifestyle, to really understand, what are we there for? Are we there to provide community and a neutral space for roasters to come along? Or are we there because we built innovations for the improvement of the coffee? And to my surprise, both sides of the booth were packed—maybe even a little bit more on the innovation side, because we had so many new pieces of gear to communicate. It was a very formative and exciting experience to be there for a couple of days at the show. HOST is big, you know… sometimes it can seem too big, in fact. It feels like it over-represents the size of the specialty coffee industry. That said, it’s a gathering that includes everyone. We had an opportunity to connect with all sides of the industry—local, European, and old school as well as specialty.
What were you most excited about at HOST 2019?
I was fascinated to watch our team, our international team, working together so flawlessly and in sync. We work hard to put our people in the center at this company, and at this show, you know, it was the people—they made the product, they made the show, they made decisions, and they made an incredible experience for our company. These are people who are just completely devoted to our company—giving demonstrations on our milk frother, our app, the new grinder—just non-stop, with a hundred people in the space at a time, under the hot lights with no air conditioning.
We felt that the people who developed the product would be the best to explain it, even though we know this is a risk! Our customers are typically very talented, and they understand the product; they have a bias for technology. I think it’s not coherent to develop a product and then have somebody who hasn’t had a lab review, doesn’t have an understanding, go out at HOST and try to explain it. For me, our way at La Marzocco is better for the customer, it’s better for the people, and it creates a better connection.
Guido, what is your first memory of espresso?
Nobody has ever asked me that question! I have goosebumps.
Now, my mom—she passed away when I was 22. She was an English professor, and she was a coffee freak, drinking coffee all day long. She would go for coffee all the time and would take me along to all the little places. The coffee was better in our country many years ago than it is today, for the most part. In our family they would say, “Oh, there’s Guido and mom again, drinking coffee!” Usually, at home it was with a Moka Pot, although I did see her drinking Nescafe once—that’s because she lived in England for so long. She got a degree in Cambridge, after the University of Milan, and when she came back she loved Nescafe, which quickly turned into espresso. I remember my grandfather saying, “Guido will end up working in coffee one day because he’s always in the coffee bar!” Looking back he was very right.
My grandfather lived in a little town on the lake, where there was a factory famous for making bar counters, and so he would make coffee bars. My town had one of the biggest flea markets in Europe—it takes over the whole town. It’s against every possible fire law, every safety law, and it lasts all day, not just the morning. That town is there on the border with Switzerland, so many of the Swiss and Germans would come into the city each week—we were invaded by German-speaking tourists! And so there’s way more cafes per capita where I grew up than a normal town might have, and every Wednesday growing up, all of us, we worked on Wednesday when the fair was held. Sandwiches, coffees, beers, quick meals—in my school we had to go on Saturday because Wednesday was a day off to work at the fair. This is how we grew up!
I think my background is not so much about coffee as a raw material. This has become much more important to me thanks to La Marzocco, and especially projects like Songwa and Accademia, but growing up here in Italy, in the service hospitality industry, this is about the social component of cafe life, which is very important. Cafe life and the expectation of a good coffee. And now we have brought this into our culture at La Marzocco, to try and create a cafe culture in the company. When you look at our booth, our factory, our parties, our gatherings, our leadership activities, it’s in the same spirit. It is an extension of cafe life.
You joined La Marzocco in 2002. How has the company changed since then? How is it the same?
There’s an answer in your question that’s implied. The company is there. The culture is there. We’re here in the hills, and you’re talking about bike culture, cafe life, the origins of the espresso product, and what it means in the community. Cafe culture in Italy was already there, it was just this best-kept secret in the world. It was a lifestyle.
What has changed is that we’ve taken these values and we’ve told the world about them. It’s about telling the story. We are passionate about telling our story, and as the culture spread and the story spread, specialty coffee has grown. We have expanded within. When we—Lorenzo Carboni and I—got involved in La Marzocco in 2002, we were so excited. As a friendly competitor, we looked at these cool machines from Florence and Seattle, and we said, “It’s so cool but nobody knows about it yet”! We were so impressed by the technology. And when we finally got the job—I’m not going to go into too much detail about how we got it—but Lorenzo and I are sitting there saying, “Hey, what’s the benchmark? What’s a business plan?” We had one computer in those days and we were working from out of our couch. I had a newborn kid and I was working overnight every night.
But I knew we needed to tell the story. We became adamant that the machine was doing justice to the coffee, and we saw a better future in coffee, that we should inspire more people to follow the trend and inspire people to follow the trend. I remember our first website back then: it was a page of the catalog, featuring an FB70 espresso machine with a fruit basket next to it, filled with all these different kinds of tropical fruits. We had to do everything back then! We couldn’t afford a webmaster; we had to do it ourselves. Everything, slowly… slowly… we did it ourselves.
You joined La Marzocco first as a salesman. What’s the furthest you ever went to sell an espresso machine?
Siberia. Tierra Del Fuego.
Tierra Del Fuego???
Yes! There was a guy in southern Argentina who kept sending us a Christmas card. So one year we said, “We’re in Argentina, let’s go.” There was no cell phone. I traveled there and sent a postcard back to Italy for myself, but I also traveled with my camera then. I was always frustrated wanting to communicate enough, wanting to explain enough.
One year during the summer holidays I decided, if I go now, I’ll have an opportunity to discover a new market. So I drove from Kazakhstan to Siberia in a car with three Russians smoking continuously. We had a car problem. One of them was a butcher, so we had somebody stop in a former mental institution that they turned into a hotel. They boiled a sheep all night for us to eat for breakfast. I tried it, a little piece, but I couldn’t really eat it… these are the stories I have. I remember from there going to a little town where there’s a five-star patisserie, the most beautiful pastries, with a La Marzocco espresso machine and bullet holes in the wall. I’ll never forget it.
When I took this job I was so young! That was 17 years ago!
I can relate!
But I think it matters you know, to remind you that we’re a small company, in the scheme of things.
Why does that matter so much to you?
Because a small company means freedom. It means you get the ear of the owners, and you can express yourself internationally. We’re in America but we’re also in Italy, and it means great things. It means that everyone has been passionate about what we’re doing and we didn’t have any resistance to go out and change the world. We were supported in our dream. And that was the most incredible luck that anyone can have. Maybe there were some questions about how us Italians were doing things, how some of us were verbalizing things across the ocean… and also on this side, the Italians have sometimes had a hard time receiving certain patterns of feedback from doing business that we’re not familiar within our culture. I would say it’s never reached any sort of great frustration cost—and it’s so much more valuable to think about what our global experience has done for us in terms of creating a cross-cultural market, and the global diversity of our team spirit.
Driving in a car with the Russians, never taking a holiday, taking chances to sell espresso machines in a community with no espresso machines—in the moment we didn’t realize it. All we knew was, we have to send espresso machines to the moon!
I feel like there are more stories.
There are so many good stories. I remember, we went to Denver—I had never been to Denver before, and remember, this was before cellphones. So we grab the business pages from the hotel phonebook, and we go to the hotel lobby phonebank with the rotary phones, and we start calling up every coffee company in the phonebook. “Do you want to buy an espresso machine? Today is your lucky day!”
You know, but as we grew the company, everything we did went back into the company. I didn’t go buy a yacht. Accademia was a five million dollar investment. This is our hobby as well as our work. All we want is a relatively good salary to raise our kids, and from there, we want to change the world of coffee. In those early years, I would work tirelessly, non-stop. I had years—2004, 2005—where I was in Italy just 40 days a year, at most. It is why we are what we are today.
My big question for you now is, how do you balance all this tradition with innovation? You are in some ways a very old and also a very new company, which is what Accademia expresses so artfully and emotionally. But how do you balance that now as a leader, as CEO?
Many people confuse tradition with old and dusty, nostalgic. I consider tradition as an inspiration. I think it’s meaningful to bring forth in the modern world the evolution of these products and to express what kind of citizens we are through them. Because for me, if we have tradition that means we can communicate our very best, and be an example for other companies and other entrepreneurs to believe in what we believe. There are many great machines out there, but they have a harder time without the tradition, these relatively new companies, start-ups, even if they’ve been acquired. You know, if all along it had been a matter of money, we would have closed long ago!
How do you mean?
We built this and we didn’t have any money! There were other companies with branch offices—1000 offices!—everyone flying business class, companies with managers and career paths—what did we have? We had a vision for a better cup of coffee, for sure. We had a vision for the barista as a utilizer of the machine, designed with the user in mind. You know, there are companies that build cars and the engineer never drives them, and it’s the same with espresso. But we have a tradition. For us, the tradition, our history and the experience, the culture we’ve built, the work, it is intangible.
When another journalist says, “Please give me the story, what is the backbone?” I have to say, well—it is tradition. There is a tradition of evolution. If you look at La Marzocco, in its own little way it has evolved into the product it is today that is very unique. Two boilers instead of one—simple, but unique. We have a tradition for vision. Think about this: the Bambi Brothers never in a million years thought they would sell an espresso machine beyond the city limits of Florence. I mean, in the early days, on the sticker for the service department they put on every machine, there was no area code. Those stickers represented an opportunity to me—when I first got here from Cimbali, who were doing things around the world, I felt like it was such an eye-opener. Everything was still done in tiny volumes. They would make a singular machine, a one of one, for a single cafe. There were no brochures, no reproduction series. Everything was made on a cart. Some machine models, they only built five.
This way of doing business meant that every time a cafe wanted a new machine, you needed to invent one. You design, you shape, you make it according to the height of the barista… and for us to take that to a global audience, it was an evolution of the tradition, to be sure. Or perhaps a tradition of evolution, reflected in so many areas of our business. Very little of this time was commercialized. We didn’t think we were cool. We didn’t think we were special, not just yet, they just… they built. They made the first horizontal boiler much in your face because it was not commercialized. We didn’t think they were cool, we didn’t think they were special, they just… they built.
And so it’s old and new. It’s evolution, or in the same breath it’s new and it’s innovation. There’s a fine line. And I think of our job now, my job, to be a curator of the traditions and history of La Marzocco, and to maintain it, to maintain this history of evolution, and to apply it to every angle of this business.
In the early days of your time with La Marzocco, you helped sponsor and launch the World Barista Championship. Would La Marzocco ever step back up to sponsor the WBC again?
Never say never. You never know in life. If it becomes relevant for us and the industry again, it would become a consideration. It was relevant then for us, as one of many things we did to give justice to our sector many years ago, and also to promote our products to the smaller community of baristas who could receive a specific product like ours. I think that, you know, in the early days the biggest commitment was logistics, to convince our customers to go compete and to get the machines set up. I remember driving to competitions in pizzerias in Berlin or Amsterdam, and we wanted to be the adventurers of the industry. We believed in them, we believed in the Specialty Coffee Association, and we believed in the ability to roll up our sleeves and produce a better experience for our own people. I don’t know if it ever worked in terms of sales—that’s very questionable. But it felt right then. And when it became more commercial, more about the money and the qualifying tests became more commercial, it felt like everybody passed the test. Whoever spent the money passed the test. And they never had that standard before, when we were the only ones. Eventually, we felt like it was no longer in line with the essence of our true spirit as a company and we didn’t want to get it tangled with the business, and so we stepped away.
All that to say, I am very glad there is a WBC. And I am glad there are companies—like Sprudge, and like many others—that believe in it and invest in it and support it. I commend all that you do, but I think it’s maybe not a fit for us. You know, we started the WBC in a hotel room!
It’s a famous story, and I appreciate you speaking about this with me candidly. How do you view sustainability in terms of the future of La Marzocco?
Our strategy for sustainability comes not just in terms of giving back and respecting the planet, but also to respect the company in the years ahead. What we do for the people, what we do for the products, what we do for profit, these are all connected, because if we aren’t successful we can’t give back. We can’t give to our employees and we can’t hire more people and we can’t develop products if we aren’t successful with our work right now. Our ability to help the planet comes from there. This is something we’re extremely sensitive to and I really consider myself an activist—I am disgusted by how we’re dealing with this planet, and I want this company to be futurist. Business is about growing everything, not just revenue. So I want to send a message that making profit is not bad, so long as you use those profits to grow everything, including our strategy for addressing damage to the planet and our carbon footprint.
The Sprudge Executive Series is a new multimedia interview series on the Sprudge Media Network. Join us in 2020 for more long-form interviews from leaders across the world of coffee.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder at Sprudge Media Network. He is co-author of The New Rules of Coffee: A Modern Guide for Everyone out now on Ten Speed Press, and a freelance journalist contributing to The Los Angeles Times, TASTE Cooking, PUNCH Drinks, Willamette Week, and The Stranger.
Zachary Carlsen is a co-founder at Sprudge Media Network. He is a co-author of The New Rules of Coffee: A Modern Guide for Everyone out now on Ten Speed Press, and the curator of a forthcoming collection of 20th-century rare books and ephemera.
Disclosure: La Marzocco is an advertising partner on Sprudge Media Network.