Travel Markets Insider / March 2003
By Larry Luxner
From the moment visitors arrive at Costa Rica's San José Juan Santamaría International Airport, the Café Britt brand name jumps out at them - from duty-free shop displays, billboards placed strategically along the highway, and colorful tourist pamphlets distributed in their hotel rooms.
Steve Aronson, president of Café Britt S.A., has made his roasted gourmet coffee the best-known in Central America, so that Americans and Europeans will remember the brand and continue buying Café Britt via mail-order long after their Costa Rican vacation is over.
Café Britt operates half a dozen retail stores at some of Costa Rica's leading tourist attractions - including the Rainforest Aerial Tram, the Tabacón resort at the Arenal volcano and hot springs, the luxurious Costa Rica Marriott and the elegant National Theater in downtown San José, where Aronson's company owns the restaurant concession.
On Dec. 23, Café Britt inaugurated its biggest retail project yet: El Cafetal, an emporium of coffee- and Costa Rica-related merchandise at San José's newly enlarged Juan Santamaría International Airport.
The 1,600sf outlet is located in a newly constructed area of the airport, facing the international departure lounge. The store features eight artificial shade trees, a fountain in the middle and a 40-foot-long mural of a coffee plantation.
"When you walk into the store, you feel like you're in a shade-grown coffee field," said Aronson, who invested $350,000 in the project. The store was designed by Café Britt's in-house designer, Monica Carballo, who used to be the head of marketing at ICAFE, Costa Rica's state-run coffee regulatory agency.
El Cafetal's main attraction is an astounding variety of souvenirs including T-shirts, burlap bags, coffee mugs, hats, books, coffee candy, macadamia nuts, coffee jewelry and shelf after shelf stocked with gourmet coffee. "We have a big display of our organic coffees, and will soon have on the market our strictly hard bean Tarrazú variety" along with light roast, dark roast and espresso varieties, said Aronson.
The coffees sell for $5 per bag, with promotions that allow departing passengers to buy four bags and get the fifth free (organic and decaf varieties cost $6 per bag).
Besides coffee, the store also sells Licor de Café, a popular coffee liqueur introduced in 1995 that competes with Mexico's Kahlua and Jamaica's Tia María - as well as Costa Rican rums and Cuban cigars through an agreement with Habanos S.A.
El Cafetal's bookstore, with a wide selection of English-language book and magazine titles, "is probably among the two or three best bookstores in Costa Rica," says Aronson.
Café Britt outbid half a dozen other potential bidders for the prime space at the recently privatized airport, which is operated by Alterra, a 50-50 joint venture led by San Francisco-based Bechtel and the Singapore Changi Airport Enterprise.
The airport, which handles between 1.5 million and 2 million passengers a year, is served by American Airlines, Grupo Taca, Continental, United and Delta. Costa Rica, long the most popular tourist destination in Central America, now receives over a million tourists a year, with arrivals growing by an average 10% a year - numbers which bode well for Café Britt.
"Our concession is based on a percentage of sales, and we're greatly exceeding our minimum bid,", said Aronson, noting that El Cafetal employs 20 people per shift.
Aronson declined to reveal terms of the concession agreement, which is confidential, though he did say that "a normal traveler spends $10-15 in retail, but the average coffee-tour shopper spends between $20 and $25."
In addition to El Cafetal, the company also has an 800-square-foot store in the same airport, as well as a number of espresso stands where passengers can get complimentary cups of freshly brewed gourmet coffee while they wait for their flights. Café Britt also has a small presence at the airport in the town of Liberia, which recently began receiving Delta flights directly from Atlanta.
Aronson came to Costa Rica in 1977 from Ecuador as a coffee broker and exporter. He started Café Britt in 1985, achieving sales of $100,000 by its third year of business. The company expects revenues of $20 million this year. Retail operations contribute 40% of total revenue and tourism another 5%.
"But our main business, around 55% of the total, is exporting roasted coffee and local distribution to supermarkets and hotels," said Aronson. "Our customers are hotels and restaurants in St. Thomas, Curaçao, St. Maarten and Aruba. And we're now a registered supplier to Puerto Rico. The biggest area of our exports is our web and mail-order business. We have an toll-free number (1-800-GO-BRITT) and call center here."
Café Britt has 400 shareholders, though Aronson and his family own just over half the company's stock. Aronson says he's in the process of taking his company public, with a private placement expected sometime in the next six months.