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Brecksville-based Caruso Coffee Co. is a national roasting powerhouse

Industrial parkways are filled with surprising enterprises. One in Brecksville is home to one of the region's most prolific coffee roasters — even under a name that might barely ring a bell for shoppers who pour over a sea of labels while shopping for their next bag of beans.

Brecksville-based Caruso Coffee Co. is steadily growing and has become a stealth powerhouse. The company acquired the Erie Island Coffee brand and its Rocky River and East Fourth Street Cleveland locations, with plans to expand the shops to other parts of Northeast Ohio.

Dominic Caruso, the company's director of operations, said Caruso Coffee's current annual production is about 4 1/2 million pounds, with a capacity of 6 million pounds per year. He said he sees production ranging upward of 10 million pounds "in the foreseeable future."

In April, Caruso's subsidiary, Generations Coffee (a partnership with Coffee Holding Co. in New York City) acquired Wisconsin-based Steep & Brew Coffee. The acquisition of Steep (with revenues of $7 million, according to that company's most recent fiscal reports) meant an investment of $2.7 million in cash and an additional promissory note, according to Daily Coffee News, an industry trade publication.

That acquisition enables the partnership to expand their roasting capacity in the Upper Midwest. The company will also maintain Steep's extensive direct-store delivery program, which covers eight states extending as far west as Kansas City, south into the Greater Chicago area and north into Minnesota.

"We've quietly grown into Ohio's largest roaster and one of the bigger players in the Midwest," co-owner Dominic Caruso said in an email, prior to a visit to the Snowville Road production facilities. "By 2019, we should exceed $30 million in revenue and produce somewhere north of 6.5 million pounds of coffee, not to mention over 15 million K-cups annually."

Not bad for a family run business that, just a few years back, all but lost its portfolio, if not its shirt.

During the mid-1980s, family matriarch Angela Berardi Caruso started custom roasting a proprietary coffee blend for Akron retailer Russ Vernon and his West Point Market. In short order, the Acme Supermarket chain took interest, and sales of Berardi coffees — named for Angela's father — took off.

Angela, who taught business courses at Midpark High School in Middleburg Heights, and her husband Michael Caruso — a biology and chemistry teacher in the Garfield Heights School System — began building the Berardi label into a profitable local brand, valued at $4 million.

But during the early 2000s, following a long and convoluted series of legal actions, Angela Caruso lost possession of Berardi's Coffee. After an ugly lawsuit, which Angela Caruso eventually won, the family was bereft.

After the family business collapsed, eldest son Dominic went to work in New York City. There he went to work for the Coffee Holding Co. and developed a relationship with the owners.

Caruso Coffee was born. Launched in 2003, the Caruso brand has been on a steady growth trajectory ever since.

Touring the production facilities and first-stage shipping area is a study in old and new. A collection of vintage roasters and state-of-the-art equipment for blending, packaging and labeling fills the cavernous space. Sacks of beans from coffee estates and ports around the world are stacked among massive food-grade bins holding blends and varietals. One machine steadily churns out an endless parade of K-cups, used in homes, offices and other businesses to brew single-serve cups using Keurig machines.

"We're getting there, being able to keep up with the big boys," Dominic Caruso added, though he has no illusions about toppling other giants. A single Starbucks roastery in western Pennsylvania produces one million pounds of coffee every two weeks.

Today, most of the business is conducted from a 30,000-square-foot office-and-production facility in an industrial parkway on Snowville Road in Brecksville. Growth has demanded the operation expand to a second warehouse nearby, a distribution center with a 40,000-square-foot capacity. The Steep & Brew Coffee purchase adds 15,000 additional square feet in Madison, Wis.

In addition to the Erie Island brand, Caruso blends and roasts coffees for an array of Northeast Ohio restaurateurs and retailers. The company worked with chef Zack Bruell to create a line of coffees custom-blended to match the style of each of his six acclaimed restaurants — brews served at the table and sold in 12-ounce bags at Heinen's Supermarkets. Caruso also roasts proprietary blends for the Hospitality Restaurants Group (Delmonico's, Blue Point Grille, The Cabin Club), Aladdin's Eateries, Flour, Yours Truly and Dante Boccuzzi's restaurants.

Perhaps their biggest brands are the Cafe Caribe and Cafe Supremo blends. Hugely popular among Latino consumers, the vacuum-packed "bricks" compete with the Bustello brand sold in New York City burroughs as well as local grocers such as Dave's Markets and Marc's stores. The Ingles Supermarkets in the Carolinas and two other Southern states, and the Cash & Carry chain out of Louisiana are also Caruso customers. The Steep & Brew purchase further expands the company's reach.

"We're hyper-focused on having a diversified customer base," Dominic Caruso said. "Essentially, we carefully refuse to put all our eggs in one basket. We have a mix of high-volume and lower-margin business, blended with lower-volume and higher-margin businesses. And mixing in home coffee consumers, supermarket shoppers, with out-of-home coffee consumers.

"We've always taken a humble and flexible view of our business model," he added. "We've focused on profitable growth and customized solutions to meet the needs of our customers: supermarkets and coffee shops."

Published July 01, 2018 4:00 am
Source: http://www.crainscleveland.com/article/20180701/news/166796/something-big-brewing-carusos-coffee-photo-gallery

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