Eugene firm percolating as a coffee consultant

By Ed Russo The (Eugene) Register-Guard
Thursday December 27, 2001

EUGENE, Ore. — Think of a city known for coffee experts and Seattle, perhaps Portland, come to mind. But Eugene also is home to people who know a few things about whipping up a perfect double skinny latte. 

Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup has made a place for itself in the nation’s specialty coffee industry with a blend of training videos, instruction manuals and advice for entrepreneurs and corporations wanting to cash in on America’s coffee craze. 

Many baristas have learned the intricacies of making espresso-based coffee drinks by watching Bellissimo’s first video, “Espresso 101,” and a companion, “Espresso 501.” 

“We feel fortunate to be the education company for this industry,” owner Bruce Milletto said. 

Karen Foley, editor of the Portland-based trade magazine Fresh Cup, said Milletto’s statement is more fact than braggadocio. 

An ever-growing number of fancy coffee drinks are being poured each day, but many are not properly made, she said. 

“There are a lot of people out there who can use enlightenment and education on how to prepare a cup of coffee, and Bruce is definitely trying to reach those people,” Foley said. 

Bellissimo’s story is tied to the nation’s growing fondness for espresso-based drinks, a trend that has made coffee bars and drive-through stands a common sight. 

About 29 million Americans drink premium coffee each day, up from 7 million just five years ago, according to the National Coffee Association. 

Milletto, who first became interested in coffee more than a decade ago as an importer and then as a retailer, said the beverage itself is only partly responsible for the trend. 

Starbucks Corp. has grown to more than 4,700 outlets by creating a place where people like to gather, Milletto said. 

“We need a place that is as comfortable as our home or office,” he said. “We need that third place.” 

Milletto helps entrepreneurs create that place. 

Milletto has just three employees, but he hires coffee experts, authors, designers, artists, video crews, musicians and others, depending on whether he is designing a coffee bar, writing a how-to-business book or making a video. 

One of his main consultants is former partner Ed Arvidson of Bend. Milletto and Arvidson started Bellissimo as a coffee cart business in Lake Oswego in 1991 before adding video-making and consulting a few years later. 

Milletto may not be well-known in Eugene, but his customers have included such major companies as Borders Books & Music, Sarah Lee, Mrs. Fields Cookies, R. Torre & Co. (the maker of Torani syrup), Gino Rossi (an espresso machine manufacturer), plus hundreds of other firms and individuals. 

Tom Kaspar of Eugene and his partners hired Bellissimo earlier this year to help them start Coffee Zone, which opened last July in the Autzen Stadium area. 

For about $1,300, Bellissimo gave advice on recipes, menu, pricing and design of the coffee bar, Kaspar said. 

Among other menu suggestions, the consultants urged Kaspar to sell more than coffee, namely fruit smoothies and ice-based coffee drinks known as granitas. 

Bellissimo is different from many of its competitors, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America in Long Beach, Calif. 

“It’s easy to find a consultant to help you learn about roasting, or how to put together a business plan,” said association spokesman Mike Ferguson. “But it’s very unique to find someone who can do all those things and who is publishing books and producing videos.” 

After moving to Eugene, Milletto and his wife, Jan, started a coffee bar near the University of Oregon. They later opened an espresso cart in Eugene. 

Bruce Milletto and Arvidson, a restaurant veteran who had owned the Baja Cafe in downtown Eugene, teamed up to start Bellissimo as a Lake Oswego coffee cart. 

The idea for the “Espresso 101” video came a couple of years later because the partners needed to create a more efficient way to train their employees, Arvidson said. 

Said Milletto: “There were volumes of books about wine, but there was hardly anything about coffee.” 

“So the light bulb came on” to create a training video that could be sold, Arvidson said. 

Within a couple of years, demand for “Espresso 101” and Bellissimo’s second video, “Spilling the Beans,” had grown to the point that the partners decided to sell their espresso outlets and concentrate on media products and consulting. 

“People were calling us saying, ’Do you do consulting?’ ” Milletto said. 

In 1998, Arvidson sold his interest in Bellissimo to Milletto to go into business in the Caribbean. Arvidson returned to Oregon about a year later when that did not work out, and he has been an independent consultant with Bellissimo ever since. 

Milletto declined to disclose his company’s sales, but he said they are less than $1 million a year and growing. About half of the firm’s revenue comes from consulting and the other half from media products. 

To make his most recent video, “The Passionate Harvest,” Milletto and his film crew traveled to Ethiopia, Guatemala, Brazil and Hawaii. Kenneth Davids, a San Francisco-based author and coffee expert, wrote the script and spoke in the documentary, along with other experts. 

“The Passionate Harvest” has won numerous awards, including one of 16 platinum awards at Houston World Fest earlier this year. 

Most of the $125,000 production cost was funded by corporate sponsors that included Whole Foods Market and the Brazil Specialty Coffee. 

With the subsidies, Milletto said he expects to start making a profit on the video, which sells for $80, sometime next year. 

Making videos and being known as an industry expert helps Bellissimo. 

“They do an excellent job of marketing themselves across the country,” said Foley, editor of Fresh Cup magazine. 

Similar to other young industries that grow rapidly, the gourmet coffee business is going through a shakeout, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America. 

Between 1995 and 1999, the number of retail outlets, including drive-through stands, ballooned from 5,000 to 12,000, the organization said. Now, many weaker operators are going out of business, so the number of outlets is expected to fall to 10,000 by the end of 2003, said Mike Ferguson, the SCAA spokesman. 

But stronger operators will survive and thrive after the shakeout runs its course, he said. With specialty coffee sales growing about 8 percent a year, Ferguson said, the number of retail establishments selling fancy coffee will start to grow again, and is expected to grow to 15,000 by the end of the decade. 

Milletto said Bellissimo will profit from the trend, partly through its extensive list of media products and services, including Web site design. 

Last year, the firm published a book on coffee drive-through stands, and Milletto is finishing revisions to the nearly 700-page “Bean Business Basics,” which will go into a second printing in January. 

End ADV for Monday, Dec. 31