On tradition and dedication at Florence-based family enterprise La Marzocco
BY NORA MANTHEY
La Marzocco has been making espresso machines by hand in Italy since 1927. Yet the business of the Bambi family has become a global symbol of Italian lifestyle and delicious espresso. La Marzocco’s machines run under high pressure in specialty cafés in Melbourne, Seattle, London, Berlin or Rome alike. Now, the professional equipment has been released in a smaller version for private customers, and the Linea Mini does not compromise on technology. Nora Manthey visited the La Marzocco factory in Italy and spoke about passion and innovation with Piero Bambi, the founder’s last son.
The road to La Marzocco leads out of Florence and along narrow serpentine roads, lined with the rolling Tuscan hills dotted with pointed cypresses and occasional rows of terracotta houses. In 90 years, La Marzocco has never left its Florentine home, but still managed to become a global player.
Its Italian operation only moved from Florence to Scarperia in 2009, into a house that combines Tuscan tradition with modern production. This fusion of tradition and the present is at the core of a company which has shaped the world of espresso since 1927, when the brothers Giuseppe and Bruno Bambi founded it. With the power of technical innovation, they soon turned their machine into the star of the Italian bar. Back in the 1920s, automatic coffee makers were still rare, vertical monsters with dubious electrics, until Giuseppe outdid them in 1939. His horizontal boiler is now the heart of every espresso maker and turned a steaming tower into a shining bungalow, over whose terrace the barista and the client could look each other in the eye. It paved the way for the casual Italian pose, leaning at the counter and having a quick espresso.
In the early days, the Bambi brothers would build whole bars to accommodate their machines. Standing behind one today, Piero Bambi recalls how his father Giuseppe designed the interiors for cafes at the kitchen table at night. Piero is the last surviving Bambi still involved in the company. At the age of 83, he continues to come to the factory every day for a few hours. Being childless and having had a heart attack, he is eager if not anxious to pass on the family tradition. In his words, it is “the feeling for the right line,” which must point towards the future at the same time.
The future means global expansion for the “Made in Florence” label. In recent years, an inter-generational group of Italian-American managers and investors have contributed to the brand’s international success. The new growth was driven by the wave of specialty coffee, which marks the victory of espresso-based beverages in the USA. The Italians felt the reverberations early on. Starbucks, a specialty coffee pioneer of the first hour, used La Marzocco machines exclusively in its early days, and the small manufacturer sponsored the barista competitions of the Specialty Coffee Association SCA for years.
Back home in Italy, the new facility strives to combine Tuscan traditions like terracotta and age-old wooden beams with modern elements. Rooms such as the “Seattle Office” host video conference calls with the U.S. management and are located directly above the shop floor. Common areas evoke a start-up atmosphere. There is an idea landscape made of plywood, table football and a fitness room. A massive, long wooden table replaces the canteen and is in fact the same old dented workbench on which Piero’s father and uncle had built their first machines. After the death of his older brother, he literally grew up among machines into which the father “put all his grief,” Piero says, and suddenly the inner eye can picture a little boy playing under the table, too small to reach above the drawer with its copper handle.
The most striking interior of any of the large rooms though are the counters with espresso machines. After all, La Marzocco has got coffee in its veins, and “real specialty coffee,” at that, says Silvia Bartolini. She is Piero Bambi’s right hand and calls him the “true lion” of La Marzocco. The lion dominates the logo and is the landmark of Florence.
Silvia takes visitors on factory tours, sometimes several times a day, because the location itself has become a destination for coffee fans. Where 1,000 machines were produced in 2009, now nearly 100 workers in the new hall now produce 15,000 a year. Cafes are clients and are increasingly becoming individual buyers. Almost half of the machines go to private customers, including David Beckham. So-called home lines such as the Linea Mini satisfy the thirst for perfect espresso at home and decorate offices, boutiques or fashion shows backstage.
Espresso is about precision. It’s about brewing a certain amount of coffee in a certain, short amount of time. You literally have seconds in which the exactly tempered water is pressed through finely ground and dense powder. In short, espresso is the art of control and therefore requires precise machines like those of La Marzocco.
While they were previously unattainable for home use, the Linea Mini has now changed that. The design of the range goes back to Piero. The Linea Mini’s small boiler is made of extra thick steel, which keeps the heat stable and only takes 10 minutes to warm up. The handling is simple and intuitive. You can operate it manually by means of a paddle interface. However, the levers are hardly inferior to the full-sized devices. They run smoothly and with enough resistance that allows fine-tuning. While the large machines, made only by request and with a 3-month lead time, come customised almost as standard, the Linea Mini reaches customers quicker with just a few adjustments. Nevertheless, the workers show pride in putting together its many components. As soon as a Linea Mini has passed multiple quality controls, the last worker responsible signs it off.
On average, a La Marzocco consists of 400 parts of which only simple ones such as screws are purchased, while safety-relevant parts are still manufactured internally, such as the steam boilers. These “Tubi Vapori” are made of the same high quality steel as surgical equipment is made of. Pipe is cut into pieces and later welded by only the most experienced employees. Up to one year of training is required until a welder is able to pull the fine welding seams. Such precision means it is sealed, but it also has aesthetic reasons, because some espresso machines bear transparent side panels. The exposed inner mechanics can be connected with up to 110 metres of wires. The men from the “Montaggio Elettrico” department cut these cables themselves to the exact length. They are the only ones in the factory to remain at their post, too special is their task. All others change between different stations and this variation ensures low fluctuation.
At the individual stations, the machines wait at different stages of the manufacturing process. With the interior still visible through only partly finished casing, they appear almost android. Asked whether the apparatuses are an object of love, Piero replies that true “Amore” can only exist among living creatures, but points to his conviction that pride in one’s own work is created “through commitment and dedication.” Silvia later adds that the names of La Marzocco machines are not only abbreviations of the family name, but also secret declarations of love. The iconic GB5 for example, officially stands for Giuseppe Bambi, but could equally stand for Giovanna Bambi. She has been Piero’s wife of 57 years, and Silvia believes the machine’s shining curves to be Piero’s lasting tribute.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q3 2017. Picture credit © Photo by Domenico Loia on Unsplash