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Real Florida

Where the past still percolates

[Times photos: Toni L. Sandys]
Hector Chivas loads a bucket with fresh coffee beans to be dumped into a roaster at Naviera Coffee Mill in Ybor City. Naviera imports beans from all over the world, roasts them and grinds them.

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 18, 2003

The story of Naviera Coffee, founded by the Fernandez family in 1921, also is the story of Ybor City.

TAMPA -- In the paper, you read something different about coffee every day. Some days coffee drinking is good for you. The next day it will burn a hole in your stomach or make you speak in tongues. Danilo Fernandez Sr. tries to take the middle ground.

"Coffee is good," he says. "In moderation."

Of course, moderation is a relative term if you grew up in Ybor City, the Latin-American community where coffee is part of the culture. Years ago, Fernandez gulped at least a dozen cups daily. He is 65 now and has reduced his consumption to a mere seven or eight cups.

He has a lot of discipline. He owns Naviera Coffee Mills, the last coffee factory in Ybor, and could take his coffee intravenously if he desired. His grandfather started the factory in 1921 and named the business after the ship that transported him across the Atlantic from Spain.

Naviera, which sprawls across half a block, supplies coffee to consumers, restaurants and cafeterias throughout America. It also features a walk-in coffee shop, El Molino, at 2012 E Seventh Ave., where Ybor City residents come for a fix of cafe cubana, the famous Cuban coffee, or cafe con leche, coffee with boiled milk.

Inside the factory, coffee beans slosh round and round in huge vats. Roasting ovens glow red and machines hiss and spit. Out on the street, the heavenly fragrance of coffee, Ybor perfume, wafts through the air.

"If you grow up in Ybor, what you remember is all the wonderful smells," declares Fernandez, an intense, dark-eyed man with a thick white mustache. "When I was a boy, every block had a different smell. Okay? You understand? You'd smell the cod coming out the door at the fish markets. You'd smell the bread from the bakeries. And of course, the coffee was everywhere."

Modern Ybor is known more for its nightclubs, taverns and tattoo parlors. Even the smell of roasting coffee is under the control of bureaucrats. Over the years, Naviera has had to install expensive odor-stifling equipment to satisfy air-pollution regulations. Yet there is no mistaking what is going on behind the sun-baked walls.

A photograph of the original Naviera Coffee Mill. The business was named after the ship that transported Danilo Fernandez Sr.'s grandfather, far right, from Spain.

Coffee fueled the factories

Some people will tell you that cigars put Ybor on the map. And they wouldn't be wrong. But they wouldn't be telling the whole story either.

"Coffee was important, too," Danilo Fernandez Sr. says. It was strong coffee that fueled the making of cigars.

Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his cigar factory from Key West to Tampa in 1886. Within decades thousands of workers in about 100 factories were making cigars by hand. Each factory featured its own el cafetero: the coffee man.

For a small fee, collected at week's end, el cafetero supplied each worker with what turned out to be an endless cup of bracing coffee. El cafetero would wheel his cart several times daily to the coffee factory of choice for a fresh batch.

Danilo Fernandez Sr. and his wife, Millie, have been married almost 47 years. His grandfather started Naviera Coffee Mill in 1921.

Fernandez's grandfather, Carlos Menendez, got his start as el cafetero, delivering by bicycle. When he opened his factory, he was a small fish in a bigger pond; a dozen factories were already serving the coffee needs of the community.

At the factories, infinite coffee was a treasured perk. No sane cigar factory owner would have considered ending the privilege; to do so would have risked wailing, the gnashing of teeth or an expensive labor strike.

"Can you imagine workers being allowed to drink coffee all day on a Ford assembly line?" asks University of South Florida history professor Gary Mormino, author of The Immigrant World of Ybor City.

Ybor life revolved around a java fix.

Streetcar conductors made coffee-drinking into a science. They'd leap off their car, rush into a coffee shop and pour their cup into a saucer to cool it quickly. Then they could bolt it down without burning their tongues and return to the car in time to collect new fares.

Restaurant waiters were required to read minds and remember faces.

Who wanted their coffee solo, which meant black? Was it Fernando? Did Jorges like his coffee cortadito, a small cup of coffee with a drop or two of milk?

"The variants depended on the personal whim and pathology of the drinker," wrote Ferdie Pacheco in his book, Ybor City Chronicles. "Strong men liked their coffee very dark (obscuro); politicians, lawyers, and burglars liked it half and half (mitad y mitad) and men with the weight of the world on their shoulders, with weak or failing digestive systems, liked it mostly milk with just a drop of coffee (clarito)."

Pacheco, who grew up in Ybor, later became a physician, Muhammad Ali's ringside doctor and a well-known painter of his boyhood scenes. But he never forgot his days of waiting tables at the Columbia.

"Size of cup was never stated but indicated by finger signals undecipherable to anyone but the waiters of the Columbia Cafe."

In old Ybor, coffee was a serious business.

Perhaps a man might let you make a joke about his wife, or wink at his daughter, but you took your life into your hands if you insulted his coffee.

On Jan. 9, 1903, Ramon Garcia strolled into Rafael Mena's restaurant for a cup. Garcia was unhappy with the quality of the brew and argued with the owner. Mena retired to the rear of the restaurant for a few minutes and returned as Garcia was paying his bill.

"Mena drew a knife and slashed Garcia on the side of his head and face," reported the Tampa Tribune. "An ugly wound was inflicted, extending from the top of his head to a point near the chin."

The unhappy coffee drinker survived the encounter. There is no record of whether he took his future patronage to another restaurant.

A life of coffee

Danilo Fernandez Sr. started drinking coffee when he was a babe in arms. Growing up, he resisted the business of his grandfather and his father. He sold shoes, he plucked chickens, he worked at a department store. At the University of Tampa, he studied business. But then he was needed to pinch-hit in the coffee factory. He is still there almost a half century later.

Other coffee factories have closed. His perseveres. Why? He traveled all across the country to sell his coffee and himself. Today, Naviera imports coffee beans from all over the world, roasts them and grinds them. It packages them and ships them out the back door the same day. Fernandez sells a blend of light roast, American coffee, and five blends of a darker roast often used in the famous Cuban coffee.

"Cuban coffee is not a special kind of coffee, really," he says. "It is a way of roasting coffee beans."

He explains. Many old-time Ybor residents were poor, and a pound of coffee had to go a long way. Beans were roasted longer than normal, almost to a burning point, to make them taste stronger. A thirsty cigarmaker could make an eye-opening cup with less coffee. He'd boil the water in a saucepan, add coffee, boil it for a few minutes, then pour it through a cone-shaped strainer lined with cotton flannel.

The middle finger on the left hand of Danilo Fernandez Sr. was severed years ago in a machine. "I kept calling the boss to tell him I wouldn't be at work, but he never answered the phone," jokes Fernandez (who is the boss).

Of course, the same can be done today in espresso machines. Not that Danilo Fernandez Sr. would consider using one. He builds his strainers out of wood and sells them at the factory's gift shop. Nobody but old-timers know what they are.

"Talking to them is part of the pleasure for me," he says. One day he will retire and his son, Dan, now 35, will take over completely. But not quite yet. Danilo is at the factory three days a week, up in his office, doing paperwork, drinking coffee, but sometimes sitting in the factory's gift shop, talking to customers who remember the old days.

They talk about the glory of Ybor -- all those neighborhood shops! -- and the guitars that were strummed on the porches and the wonderful smell of ripe guavas on backyard trees and the aroma of roasting pork wafting out of open windows before the days of air conditioning.

World War II came. For a while, it looked like coffee might become an endangered species because of shortages. At factories, workers were told they would continue to enjoy coffee, but not sweetened coffee, unless they were willing to bring in their own sugar, which often they did.

"After the war, a lot of people who had seen the world came back to Ybor and they didn't want to make cigars like their fathers and grandfathers," Fernandez says. "They got educations, they did other work, they left Ybor."

And so the old Ybor began disappearing. Later a new interstate sliced through the heart of the community, blocking neighbor from neighbor. Businesses failed; the crime rate rose. Now Ybor is coming back, maybe not coming back the way old-timers would prefer, but coming back, at least at night, when young people roam the streets with alcoholic beverages in hand. Many have never seen Ybor during daylight; during the day, Ybor still belongs to the coffee-drinking old people.

A photograph of the original Naviera Coffee Mill, top, hangs above a drawing of the second building, which was near the current location on Seventh Avenue.

"You know, the Ybor I knew was a thriving place," Fernandez says. "Everybody knew everybody. If you were a kid, you didn't mess around. Okay? Somebody would say, 'I'm going to tell your father' and that was the end of bad behavior.

"And people, they really knew how to work. You know? Okay? When I was young, I never asked about money. I never asked for a raise! I might tell my boss, 'Sir, I just had another job offer. If I take it, here's how much I'm going to make.' If the boss valued you, he'd give you the raise. If not, you'd take the new job for more money.

"Now the young people, all they care about is how much money they are going to make. That's their first question. How much money? And they don't even know how to work. They think there's a Santa Claus. They think they're entitled to anything they want without sacrifice."

Danilo Fernandez Sr. pours himself a calming cup of black coffee. The middle finger of his left hand is missing the top part.

"It got caught in a machine years ago. Machine tore it off. They found the finger, but I didn't have time for surgery to put it back into place. I said, 'Just sew me up. I have to go to work tomorrow.'

"Okay? You know what I'm talking about? That was how it was in the old days."

-- Special thanks to Andrew Huse, program assistant, Florida Studies Center, University of South Florida library.

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