A short train journey from Florence couched amoung the Tuscan hills is a holy site for all coffee afficianados. The first thing that struck me about the La Marzocco factory was it’s modern clean look. A building more likely to be seen in silicon valley than amoung the olive farms.
San Sieve is known for its moter racing track, yet La Marzocco is the coffee machine of choice worldwide, but apparently they not as well know within Italy itself. My comrade Dagmar, who organised this juant via Mr Henk of La Marzocco Netherlands, was wondering out loud who we were meeting when a La Marzocco branded van pulls up.
Two Italians from La Marzocco Rome shared our ride to the factory. Despite the language barrier quickly we were talking coffee machines. Such is the fraternity of coffee. They talked with love for their company founders and ethics. They spoke of 1939, when Giuseppe Bambi registered a patent for a machine with a horizontal boiler, the first of its kind, with group heads side by side (linear). This gave the barista more space to operate the machine and the possibility of more groupheads that disperse the espresso. This is often the first thing you learn about La Marzocco, But more on this later.
Walking into the Factory’s reception the space is dominated by an early 20th century Vittoria roaster, maybe 40kgs I’d guess. Well waiting Dagmar and I discussed the pros and cons of the old roaster and direct flame roasting this roaster having its flame jets in the centre of the drum axis, rather than from beneath the drum. We were giddy with the spirit of the space already.
We were then welcomed into museum and coffee bar area. At this point only a couple people had arrived for the tour so with luck we got Silvia, La Marzocco PR, to ourselves. We quickly got down to the business of talking history. I feel disingenuous using the term PR as that term is associated with spin, marketing and hype. La Marzocco was free of all of this. I’ve never seen a company so large that is full people passionate about who they work for and the history of what they do.
Silvia told us about the two brothers, craftsmen who operated a workshop building all sorts of things, panel beating and metal working. Giuseppe and Bruno Bambi. One commission taken by the workshop for an upright boiler coffee machine. The Fiorenza, essential I large mokkha pot with something like a portafiter on each side of the machine and no pressure regulation. If you want to cool it down add more water, if you want more heat as more coals. The pressure was a mere 3 kg per cm³ compared to the 9kg per cm³ machines that came later. The machine required two operators. One stoking, one brewing. At the time they were not known as barista, simply Italian for bar men, But machinista. This machine was akward, dangerous and didn’t produce very nice coffee.
By 1936 the Bambi brothers had completely revolutionised the coffee machine. Inventing design features which are still standard today. They changed the way the boiler worked, adopted the successful group style from Gaggia with spring levers in the 1950s. By far the most beautifully designed of the coffee machines in the espresso Hayday of post war.
While other coffee machine manufacturers in Italy continued to operate during The war the Officina Fratelli Bambi as they were known was no friend of the regime. They could not obtain license from the Mussolini government for use of metals. Many early machines were taken and melted down for the war effort.
Hardly surprising since the lion found on all LMs are a symbol for the Florentine Republic. The La Marzocco lion, based on a sculpture by Dontello, was a reinterpretation of Mars, a god who was a symbol for the Florentine republic. Pre dating the Roman invasion and Christianity. Guiseppe however did patient the liner boiler during this time but due to Bruno dying during the war his wife took the Linea patent to other companies which is why they are now the style of all modern coffee machines.
The machine in the hospitality area, a three group Linea with a brass casing hand beaten by Giuseppe when he was 97 years old decorated with the Lilly of Florence. As Silvia is asking if we want a coffee an elderly man starts dosing and grinding behind the machine and makes us an espresso. Silvia smiles and introduces us to Pietro Bambi. I’m taken hold by an uncharacteristic shyness but Dagmar jumps behind the machine with him and despite the language barrier an exchange ensures.
Silvia tells me that when she first started she wasn’t a barista, but she was trained by Pietro, she found all the techniques and steps a little overwhelming. Asking him to slow down he told her well I’m teaching you properly because I wouldn’t waste my time on someone stupid. A backhanded compliment. We tried an espresso from Guatemala, roasted locally.
After the war Guiseppe work with limited resources. He would visit soldiers markets to buy old parachutes and metals to fashion in the workshops products. Hard to imagine when looking at this large, solar powered Spanish mission style building that it was grown on coffee machines built with used fun casings.
We started the tour moving from the offices to R&D but unfortunately I didn’t get to see the La Curva LMs lever project. It was in the research and design section. The blinds were down and the future plans of LM are still a secret to me.
First stop was the top floor where both GS3s and Linea Minis are assembled. These are single group machines. GS3s for low use commercial such as in roasters, bars and training. The Linea Mini the new sweet heart for home users.
The shop floor for both of these machines are broken up into separate areas with the top for people working in each section. Silvia explained all staff had interchangeable skills and no one was fixed in one position.
It’s amazing that each machine is handmade to order. Each customisable, and they often are. The Brothers design skills also extended to decor as did Piero Bambini was originally training to become an interior designer and his older brother was to continue the company.
interior designer. So many coffee bars were designed by Piero. He even designed chandlers and moldings for them.
It’s almost like LM have developed along parallel lines to the industrial revolution. They have not industrialised and compartmentalised the process but simple made the workshop method bigger and bigger. They don’t operate top down push and production line assembly, but operate collaboratively and give room for bottom up innovation. They are modern day craftspersons not allowing themselves to be hurried each machine taking the time that is required to finish to a high standard.
That a single machine can be assembled by just a few workers each having responsibility for those individual machines. Counter intuitively LM is a quiet, clean and zen like calm space where intelligence and innovation is valued. The large windows over vistas of olive farms no doubt helps worker morale too.
Dagmar pointed out the number of women employed by La Marzocco. The ratio is healthy and women take tasks equal to men, not resigned to just making the tea (or espresso).
Moving through the lower part of the factory we continued the tour we passed the man himself Kees Van Der Western, Dutch innovator of such machine design as the mirage and minstrel. I can only guess what creative collaborative projects may be in the works. He was kind enough to compliment me on the Faema shirt I happened to be wearing that day.
As well all workers having a knowledge of the wide range of techniques for assembling all builds of machines they also have strict quality control. Parts from suppliers are rejected for the smallest imperfection. We were shown a saturated group cast as a single piece of surgical stainless steel that was rejected for the rough finish it had been given.
These groups are a major source of pride for LM, a solution to temperature instability, and created in the early GS models. The design so much a part of LM at every point even the concept behind the saturated groups is encoded into the GS logo for these machines. This design profile of the machine gave the barista far more space to interact with customers. It was also the machine the original Starbucks use and was the foot in the door for the American market. If it wasn’t for LMs and Pietro having the insight to expand from Italian to American markets the espresso and third wave coffee movement we know today would have not happened as beautifully as it did.
This is the full version of the article published by Caffeine Magazine
Co-writing credit to Charlotte Taylor-Page
I’m gonna take a completely unrisky bet that if you’re reading this, you’re either in a coffeeshop right now, or you work in one. Take a look at the people around you, they’ll probably fall into two categories, and I’m not just talking about preferences for facial hair. You average barista is either I’m just barista-ing while studying/travelling/saving money to study and or travel – unfortunately this trend leads to those once a year conversations with aunties back home asking why you’re still ‘just a barista’ despite being in my mid-thirties (just me?) The second category is the barista who knows more than the boss, the barista who is intending to open a coffeeshop of their own one day.
Starting a coffeeshop is one of those things – it looks like anyone can do it (we’ve seen enough of those kind of places in the recent coffee explosion) but without investment from multimillionaire or loopholes around tax-law it also looks like a Sisyphean feat (not easy in skinny jeans). But there is a way, if you go down the DIY route, you can open a coffeeshop on as little as £600. I know, because I did it, and here’s how. Kiss goodbye to your annoying hipster boss. You are now that annoying hipster boss.
You’ll need some start-up money, of course. Short of collectivising with your coworkers and pooling your tips now is the time to beg, borrow and steal. Set up a Kickstarter with free cups of coffee as rewards (in fact, pay all your bills in coffee, this is the freemarket afterall). Sell your soul freelancing. Or, you know, stay in your current job until you have enough savings and accumulated knowhow to do it all yourself (either that or you’ll hate coffee so much you’ll start drinking tea).
You’ll need a space. A place with people, preferably. People are really important for a coffeeshop, almost as important as a pitcher-rinser, definitely more important than that on-demand grinder you’ve been eyeing up. To come under budget your best bet is a market or shared space. A lobby in a set of offices or unit in a trendy studio. Charities with free space are often keen so long as your business is ethical, drug cartels looking for money laundering fronts, if not. If you have transport, pop-up spaces are gaining popularity and it always helps to be flexible and fashionable. Some people are running coffee bars in London in spaces they get in exchange for free coffee and the customers they bring into a shared space. I rented a corner of a vintage market, using the second-hand furniture for tables and seating.
There is a reason why shabby chic is in. It is cheap. But it looks edgy and arty, not so cheap that you’re reluctant to hand over nearly three quid for a flat white, but enough that people assume you care so much about your coffee that you didn’t have time to strip plaster and hide wiring. Stripped plaster and exposed wires are in. Old school lab stools go for £45 a piece online, but if you’re willing to dumpster dive they’re free. Find a school chucking out desks and fittings and you’re onto a winner. Workshop benches make a gorgeous bar and are just the right height for an espresso machine.
Which brings us to machines. In my first shop I got lucky and found a La Pavoni lever for less than £300. This doesn’t happen often, but the seller didn’t know enough about machines or the Internet to haggle. Italian eBay is a goldmine (so much so I’m reluctant to impart knowledge). Otherwise ask your roaster of choice for a machine on lend, most places have something lying around the workshop. Espresso machines aren’t nearly as complicated as they look. If you have the knack (or a friend) then refurbishment of a clunker is the cheapest option. Limescale is easily removed, parts sourced online. Dr Espresso can refurb your not so shiny kit for a price.
With all the hip coffee bars flashing an EK43 the older clicky-clack grinders are flooding auction sites. You’ve got time enough later to buy all the fancy toys and RO systems your coffee-nerd heart desires, once you’re open and making money. If you’re really geeky you can modify your grinder to be G.O.D. by removing the doser, replacing with a funnel and timer switch (check out Home Barista Forum for hardcore hacks). Made by Knock is the place to go for tampers, they’ll even laser your logo onto your handle, also perfect Instagram fodder.
And yes, you’ll need to be on social media, but maybe not as much as you think. Marketing is important, but likes and favourites do not necessarily translate to espresso sold. Better to encourage existing customers to share your shop on social media – perfectly Instagrammable latte art and writing your @name on those witty a-boards you spend all day coming up with. Get yourself a listing on Google Maps, Foursquare, London’s Best Coffee App etc, this is how actual people looking for coffee will find your shop.
The most important thing is open your damn shop. Open first, details later. All cafes take a few months to get into the swing. Don’t laminate your menu just yet. Obviously don’t laminate it at all, find the perfect typewriter font and bulldog clip it to a plank of wood.
Baristas, the coffee revolution is happening, ditch the bosses and open £600 espresso bars everywhere. All you have to lose are the chains.