A big brand in coffee circles, La Marzocco remains an artisanal company. But the espresso-machine maker is a growing one: Its Ballard-based U.S. unit has doubled in three years to about 35 employees.
At the Ballard warehouse of La Marzocco, a maker of iconic espresso machines, the boom in specialty coffee is in plain sight.
Hundreds of large boxes sent from the company’s factory in Florence, Italy, fill the shelves; a team of workers unpacks the espresso-maker components, assembles them and prepares them for domestic distribution.
Most of these macchine are commercial-grade behemoths costing five figures and beloved by indie coffee shops. The rest are part of La Marzocco’s budding home business for espresso makers that start at $4,995.
A big brand in coffee circles, La Marzocco remains an artisanal company. But it is a growing one: The U.S. unit has doubled in three years to about 35 employees.
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And it’s bursting at the seams. Six marketing staffers now operate in a nearby co-working facility due to lack of space. Next year, the company plans to move into an adjacent property it bought in Ballard.
According to financial documents filed by La Marzocco’s Italian unit, sales of machines rose 23 percent between 2012 and 2013 to about 28 million euros, approximately about $37 million at the time.
Whitney Cornell, La Marzocco’s head of marketing, says production at the Florence factory nearly doubled between 2012 and 2014 to about 10,000 units.
Increased marketing is helping propel the growth. Late last year, the firm, which has traditionally just sold its machines to roasters, launched an online business to directly market its wares to java fans who want to make espresso at home.
In February, La Marzocco also began giving workshops to baristas and coffee aficionados at a space in Brooklyn.
“There’s a huge and growing interest in specialty coffee worldwide,” said Cornell.
La Marzocco plans a big splash at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual meeting, which opened Thursday at the Washington State Convention Center.
The event, which lasts through Sunday, is in Seattle for the second year in a row. It highlights the fever pitch reached by the highbrow coffee industry: The trade group says 10,748 people are attending, including 2,724 exhibitors, about on par with last year.
Those numbers include coffee farmers, roasters, baristas and traders of the bean. Nearly a third of attendees come from outside the U.S.
La Marzocco was founded in Italy in the 1920s; it takes its name from the lion that symbolizes Florence.
In the late 1970s, Kent Bakke, a Seattle entrepreneur, began distributing the machines in the Pacific Northwest. In 1984, he sold one to Starbucks. That began a profitable relationship that a decade later led Bakke to buy La Marzocco outright.
The company opened a second factory in Ballard to supply the fast-growing coffee shop empire. But in 2004 Starbucks switched to automatic machines, prompting the Ballard factory to close.
Bakke had by then sold the distribution business to a Swiss company, but he repurchased it in 2009.
La Marzocco’s Cornell says the brand managed to overcome the Starbucks setback because it coincided with the emergence of the so-called Third Wave of coffee — new roasters and coffee shops such as Portland’s Stumptown and Chicago’s Intelligentsia, which obsessively focused on bean and preparation quality.
Nowadays, according to Cornell, La Marzocco’s biggest markets are the U.S. and espresso-obsessed Australia (not always in that order).
Scott Callender, who heads the company’s home business, says there’s been plenty of interest in the consumer systems despite the price tag — especially from two particular constituencies that are widespread in the Seattle area: tech people and gear-loving cyclists. “They’re detail-oriented and obsessive,” he said.