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Vittoria's Rolando Schirato heads to Chicago for another coffee break(through)

Rolando Schirato was darting through New Orleans International Airport after a recent conference. As the gateway to the Big Easy, its food options spanned chicken jambalaya, shrimp gumbo and an alcoholic beverage dubbed "voodoo juice". Trickier to locate was a well-made espresso - even Starbucks was absent.

Globe-trotting, caffeine-deprived Australians can no doubt relate. But for Schirato, the managing director of Vittoria, the episode had a resonance beyond mere inconvenience. Coffee is his occupation, his raison d'être his voodoo juice. "There was nothing at that airport that I would even classify as coffee," he says.

Once he'd arrived in Los Angeles, though, he could choose from a constellation of venues serving his own. Over the past two years, and with relatively little fanfare, Vittoria has infiltrated the United States market. Australia's leading pure coffee brand is now available at iconic hotels such as Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, the Avalon in Palm Springs and W Hollywood. It's there on the counter at The Butcher's Daughter, a hipster-filled cafe; and juice bar with outlets in New York's SoHo and Venice in LA, and at Jessica Biel's new family-friendly restaurant in LA, Au Fudge. In Manhattan, one can order a Vittoria latte at Dante, or at Nourish Kitchen & Table among other eateries. In total, there are 70 high-profile accounts, testifying that the brand is percolating anew.

Driving the expansion is Schirato, who travels to the US virtually every month. He assumed the company's pivotal role two years ago and, in order to write his own chapter in the third-generation family business, has made the sprawling North American market a chief focus. This weekend, starting May 21, Schirato and a contingent of staff members will showcase the brand at a trade event in Chicago hosted by the National Restaurant Association, an organisation that supports more than 500,000 businesses.

It will be Vittoria's largest trade presentation since they entered the US. Mobile barista carts emblazoned with their identity enable them to take the coffee show on the road. "We're targeting high-end hotels, top-notch restaurants and good independent operators that we can work with to grow coffee," Schirato says.

Espresso pioneers Down Under

We are seated in his office at Vittoria headquarters, an expansive and expanding warehouse in the western suburb of Silverwater. The coffee impresario, who's 33, has a boyish demeanour, affable manner and athletic build accented by a tailored blue suit. His office is decorated with Hans Wegner chairs, vibrant paper coffee cups designed by local fashion luminaries, and out-takes from the brand's advertising campaign with Al Pacino. Casting Pacino back in 2010 was another Schirato initiative, and the first time the feted actor had consented to endorse a product.

It takes just a few moments before an in-house barista knocks on the door to take our coffee order. Schirato, who tends to consume three to four cups a day, requests a piccolo.

The arrival of the fragrant coffee prompts a brief history lesson. Vittoria's antecedents stretch back to 1947, when two Italian brothers, Orazio and Carmelo Cantarella, began importing European foods. In 1958, they started roasting 100 per cent Arabica beans for Italian cafes. Rolando's father, Les Schirato, who married into the family, joined the company in 1972. One of his biggest achievements was hustling the brand into supermarkets in the 1980s.

"It was a battle because back then no one thought Australians would drink Italian espresso," Schirato says. When cafe culture took off in the 1990s, the company soon became one of the foremost suppliers. Today, Vittoria claims to roast the equivalent of 2 millions cups of coffee a day.

Father and son team

That staggering figure includes two offshoots, Caffe Aurora and Chicco D'oro. Aside from beans, Vittoria Food & Beverage does a brisk trade in mineral water, olive oil and imported cheeses; they are the distributor for Jarlsberg from Norway. The brand's availability at top-tier restaurants, its connections to well-known chefs, and its annual sponsorship of restaurant awards and partnership with Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, adds up to an inviolable position. Despite incursions by an outpouring of coffee roasters - there are close to 500 in NSW alone - Vittoria retains its position as market leader in pure coffee. Annual turnover is near the $230 million mark, with Les Schirato and his wife Luisa the majority shareholders for the company.

Now 61, Schirato senior remains the chief executive. "He's got a lot of energy my old man," Schirato says. "He's taking on a different role, and works on some larger strategic issues. I'm fortunate that I've had him around to learn from. Now, it's more about me coming to him for guidance as opposed to being overshadowed."

The pair have a dynamic working relationship that is distinctly free from bitterness. It can, occasionally, become combustible. Rolando Schirato says, "We're crazy Italians and we will argue passionately, something my senior management team laugh about. But then we go into the next meeting and we are fine. We don't carry grudges. I could have a big blue with him on Friday but the next day he is at my house playing with my son."

Refreshing talent

Brian Long, former chairman of Ernst & Young and board director of Cantarella Bros, believes that father and son have many traits in common: innate business acumen, a deep-seated belief in the brand and its employees, and a sense of humour. "Their relationship is based on mutual respect and acknowledgment of their individual strengths," he says.

Naturally, generational differences do arise but consensus is always reached. "Les, while visionary, is a careful and cautious planner who focuses on the details," he says. "Rolando understands the importance of the details but, with typical youthful exuberance, is keen to get there fast." The younger Schirato, who has touched every aspect of the business over a 15-year period, has an aptitude for marketing. "Rolando has been instrumental in refreshing the brand," Long adds.

If Les is the "coffee king", as he is often referred to, Rolando is the merchant prince looking to expand the empire. After observing his father build the company from the grounds up, he is now reshaping it. "I'm interested in where I can see the business go," Schirato says. Caffeinated pods are a new direction. Schirato steered Vittoria's capsule system into supermarkets in 2014, and it recently emerged as the top-ranked pod brand. "The capsule market is worth $115 million and has grown to that size in an 18-month period," Schirato says.

He also launched a gourmet coffee brand, Will & Co., with Sam and Richard Coombes. It's hard to believe but Australia does not rank highly in terms of global per capita coffee consumption. Europeans and Scandinavians are ahead of us. "So there's plenty of room for growth," he says.

Conquering America

Cafe ownership has never been part of the Vittoria equation; roasting and wholesaling is their preferred strategy. They also prefer to go it alone, with no outside investment. The brand exports coffee to 15 countries, including Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore, and has recently started to supply luxury hotels in China and the Middle East. Yet Schirato sees the most potential for growth in the US. "A city like San Francisco has 18,000 restaurants in a small geographic area," he says, coffee-coloured eyes widening.

Participation in networking events has been critical to Vittoria's US outreach. Schirato is a member of the Young Presidents' Organisation (YPO), an invitation-only network of chief executives younger than 45. YPO regularly hosts conferences for its 22,000 members, including recent events in Napa Valley and New Orleans. The latter was predicated on Rockefeller management principles. One of those theories posits that leaders must share their vision with their employees, so Schirato took his senior team along with him.
Mindful of not appearing hubristic, Schirato bided his time before solidifying an LA office. "I got close to taking a big site first but I didn't want to be arrogant about it," he says.

Scheduled to open this winter on the west side of the city, not far from Sony Studios, the new satellite office will be a place to train clients and host events. In a brand first, a cafe may even be part of the equation. The LA team is headed by Jake Bedwell, Schirato's cousin, and includes two Australians, David Harper and Sam Trude. "For me, it's all about deploying people from here who know how we do things and adding in local talent," he says.

Family ties

At Vittoria, blood is thicker than coffee, and nepotism is not a dirty word. Touring the $20 million-dollar facility, whizzing by two enormous Probat roasters from Germany and coffee beans streaming in from Brazil, Costa Rica and beyond, Schirato points out his many relatives on staff. Even more employees have stemmed from family members recommending friends. "Nearly everyone we hire has a direct link if not to me or my family, then to someone else who works here," Schirato says. "It helps you maintain the culture."

Schirato majored in anthropology at Macquarie University, which might have informed his sociable outlook. Like his exuberant father before him, he's a people person, and spends many nights entertaining retail customers. "It's fair to say that Rolando is more understated than Les but you would be foolish to underestimate him," says Anthea Loucas, editor of Australian Gourmet Traveller. "Rolando is looking for new horizons to grow the brand, and surrounds himself with people that are helping to realise his vision," she says. "He's smart, savvy and charismatic, and has a genuine love for hospitality."

Outside of airports, the American coffee scene has markedly improved in the past decade. Still, Schirato thinks his brand has a distinct selling point. "We're an Australian roaster with an Italian heritage and that sets us apart," he says.

Would Schirato ever take Vittoria back to the homeland? "We will definitely have a significant presence in Italy before I retire," he says. "Italy is the home of espresso but I believe Australia is ahead of them in regard to milk coffees and breakfast." In a culture where breakfast consists of a biscuit and an espresso, it will be intriguing to see how Italian consumers react to corn fritters, avocado toast and Italian-Australian flat-whites.

This article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review on Saturday 28th May. Republished with permission of the author.


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