Savoring Success By Cup

October 20, 1994|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,Sun Staff Writer

Nick Vaccaro, who owns a chain of Italian pastry shops, bought his first La Cimbali in 1981. Then he bought six more of the espresso makers. But as much as he liked the machines, he disliked the service provided by their New York distributor.

Enter Rick and Tom Erber, who saw a gap in the Baltimore metropolitan area's gourmet coffee business and opened Espresso Outfitters in Crofton two years ago.

Although there were two other major espresso machine distributors in Maryland, neither sold La Cimbali.

"La Cimbali is the Ferrari of the industry," said Ward Barbee, publisher of Fresh Cup, a trade magazine for gourmet coffee dealers. "They are reliable machines that make a consistently excellent drink."

When they set up shop last fall, the Erber brothers became the Milan, Italy, manufacturer's third distributor in the United States, after operations in Los Angeles and New York.

So far, the brothers have sold 130 machines, which range in price from $3,500 to $19,000. The 10-employee company hopes to tally $1.5 million in sales by the end of the year.

Today there are 14 La Cimbali vendors in the United States, with the brothers covering Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington. The Crofton company also supplies machines for Planet Hollywood restaurants, a chain owned by Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and for Marriott International.

The opening of a local La Cimbali distributor has delighted coffee shop owners such as Mr. Vaccarro who have long used the machines but could not find adequate parts and service.

"I find Cimbali excellent," said Mr. Vaccaro, although the New York distributor "was very independent."

"He had poor manners with customers. A lot of the sales that are coming out now (for La Cimbali) are because of Espresso Outfitters."

With the growing demand for espresso and cappuccino, industry experts say service becomes as important as the brand name.

"If you have a good machine and it's broken, it's not a good machine," said Jerri Knox, regional restaurant manager of Nordstrom, which recently bought three La Cimbalis from Espresso Outfitters. "It's crucial that these machines work 100 percent."

In Little Italy, La Cimbali and Faema machines dominate the cafe counter tops because the two Italian-made machines are considered to be the top two brands.

"Faema is the Maytag of the espresso machines," said Mark Seidel, president of Europro Imports Inc., the Baltimore Faema distributor and one of the Erbers' largest competitors.

Mr. Seidel said he hopes to sell $2 million worth of the machines by year's end. "[La Cimbali] hasn't hurt me," he added. "The market seems big enough."

The Erbers, who grew up in Rockville, got into the espresso machine business after managing Steak And Ale restaurants and starting up Maryland Bride magazine. They sold the magazine to a New York publisher in 1992 and began looking for another business. After several months of research and a trip to Italy, the two convinced themselves that gourmet coffee would be lucrative.

"Alcohol consumption has gone down. So what's happening is that these restaurants are finding a way to pick up what was lost at the bar," said Rick Erber, 32, president of the company. Tom Erber, 30, is the vice president,

Espresso and cappuccino yield particularly high profit margins because it is so cheap to make. Rick Erber says that it costs about 25 cents to make a cup of cappuccino, which typically sells for $2.50.

"It's a big moneymaker," he said.

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