Naviera coffee company turns 100 next year. For generations, the fragrance of its roasting beans filled the air in Ybor City. Naviera Coffee Mills, Inc. was founded in 1921 by Spanish immigrant Carlos Menéndez and now ships its products all along the Eastern Seaboard and to many private homes throughout the country. Its Naviera and Cafe El Aguila brands are fixtures on the shelves of Publix, Winn-Dixie and many other stores.
Fourth-generation owner Danilo Fernández Jr. reluctantly moved the factory from Seventh Avenue in 2016 because his business had expanded beyond the building’s capacity. “We searched up and down in Ybor,” he said. “And we really couldn’t find anything available.” The plant now is located at 5401 E. Henry Ave., north of Hillsborough Avenue off 56th Street.
Fernández, 54, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the company’s business and history.
Are you planning anything special for the 100th anniversary?
Matter of fact, I’ve been working recently with our film supplier who produces our packaging material, and he assures us that by the end of December, we’re going to have a special pack. We’re going to change our logo just for the 100th year, and then we’re working with, like an anniversary edition of a certain blend – it’s very difficult to get hold of the coffees. They’ve turned quite pricey over the years, but we did bring in a micro-lot, and it’s from Santo Domingo. Because the original blend of Naviera, when my great-grandfather made it, had Dominican coffee. …
After they had their hurricanes, it decimated the coffee industry there and it’s just not commercially traded anymore. So we have found some of that and we’re going to do an anniversary edition of the coffee.
How did the company begin?
I know my great-grandfather, when he immigrated to the United States, he went to work for his brother, who had a coffee company here in Ybor City. … And his brother a few years later decided to sell the company. …
My grandfather didn’t immediately go into the coffee business. He went to Tarpon Springs and opened a Spanish restaurant in the middle of a Greek community, and that went over like a lead balloon. He lasted about a year and a-half, and then he moved his family back to Ybor.
He wasn’t very good at rolling cigars – that was the main industry here in Ybor. So he said the only other thing “I know how to do and I love is roast coffee.” So he started Naviera Coffee, and he always said, “If I start a business, I’m going to name it after the shipping lines” that brought him to the United States. So that’s how the name Naviera came about.
Who are some of your steady customers?
For the restaurant trade, we served the Colonnade from when it was a drive-in to the day it closed. We have been the only coffee company for Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club since they opened. La Teresita restaurant in Tampa, they’ve been brewing our coffee for well over 40 years.
We do custom blends for smaller restaurants. They want something unique to themselves. … Just because we’ve grown a little bit, you don’t forget about where we started from. And when we wanted to start something, everybody wanted the huge orders, and my dad (Danilo Fernandez Sr.) was never that way. He said everyone needs to start somewhere.
And you’ve also had a long relationship with the Columbia.
The Columbia Restaurant, they’re more than a customer, a business partner. They’re family. …
They roasted their own coffee, I believe, up to the late ’70s, possibly early ’80s, and they stopped roasting their own. They were having problems with the coffee roaster that they went with. And Adela Gonzmart (granddaughter of the founder) came walking down the street – she went to Rotary with my dad every Wednesday. And she said, “Here’s the last pound of original coffee that we roasted. Can you match this?” And my dad said, “Give me about a week and let me see what I can come up with.”
And we took them some samples down and started doing business from the very next day.
Did you start out as a kid at the business?
Oh, I would go when I was old enough to remember going. It would be my grandfather, my grandmother, my father, the people that were with us. Mr. (Rafael) García was with us for 53 years. Adolfo (Adilla) was with us for 27. R.C. (Arsenio Velarde) was with us for 21.
It was like spending the day with the family. That’s all I knew. And I loved going to work with my dad. I’d just be sitting there waiting for him in the kitchen.
How have you kept your operation going during the pandemic?
Well, I go back to my father. He taught me considerable amounts of everything, not only just personally but in business. He always said, hey, you know, we do restaurants, we do gourmet coffee shops, we do the grocery store industry, we co-pack for office coffee services. He said whenever one area goes up, some other area may come down. Don’t lay all your eggs in one basket. So we maintained ourselves diversified, that when, unfortunately, the shutdown happened, all the restaurant business went to zero, same as the office coffee service. The grocery stores kept us running, kept all our people employed. We never have cut an hour, and we’re proud of that.
The aroma now fills your new neighborhood. Does that draw neighbors?
When we moved into our facility, a gentleman next door came over and said, “I smell coffee all day. It’s delicious. Can I try some?” We set him up, and he’d pick up coffee till the day he moved on from that facility.
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