Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Venezuelan coffee through Citgo Stations

I love venezuelan coffee.
vdebate reporter
PhillyDeals: Venezuela marketing coffee through Citgo stations
By Joseph DiStefano
Inquirer Staff Writer

The chief executive officer of Citgo Petroleum Corp. and the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States were in Brookhaven yesterday at a Citgo gas station and convenience store just north of the Chester city line, to launch what they hope is a lucrative new trade relationship based, not on fuel, but on stimulants.
Venezuela is better known for oil than for coffee. But the South American nation has decided to copy its neighbor, Colombia, and retail its aromatic caffeinate directly to North Americans - using Venezuelan-owned Citgo local gas stations and convenience stores as a distribution network. So, appreciable corporate and diplomatic firepower gathered at a suburban gas station on a sweltering midsummer afternoon to discuss coffee.
"This was an initiative of Venezuela's president," said Citgo CEO Alejandro Granado, who came up from Citgo headquarters in Houston for the occasion.
"He asked us two or three years ago on behalf of the cooperative coffee growers if we could do something to benefit the market, with our network of thousands of service stations. We said we'd look into it, and we made it happen."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is known for his socialist policies at home and his confrontational diplomacy abroad, much of it directed at President Bush and what Chavez calls American imperialism.
In Brookhaven, Chavez's U.S. ambassador, Bernardo Alvarez, was all about conciliation and co-prosperity. "It will be another way of connecting our two peoples," he told the crowd. "We already export oil, baseball players, and now, well, coffee."
Venezuela wants to diversify its exports so it's not so dependent on oil, Granado said. Venezuela says it once produced almost as much coffee as Colombia, but farm exports dropped as oil became dominant in the last half-century. "Now, the perverse impact of oil monoculture is being reversed by new development policies," Granado said.
That includes coming to grips with capitalist marketing. "Formerly, it was very hard to be competitive in the U.S. market," said Alida Moreno, president of Cafe Venezuela, a group of 3,000 growers that provided the first seven-ton shipment of coffee to Citgo and is using the Citgo relationship to add more growers.
Colombian coffee cooperatives already reach U.S. markets through a chain of Juan Valdez-brand coffee bars in places such as Suburban Station and the shops just east of City Hall.
Alvarez said Venezuela required the cooperatives to guarantee a portion of profits to fund clinics, schools and roads in Venezuela's coffee regions.
We'd have to go to Venezuela to know how that's working.
Former Wawa Inc. executive John Sacharok has visited the country's Andean growing regions and the cooperatives' refurbished roasting plant at Pampan Trujillo, and he said he was impressed by improvements to the industry in recent years.
"They know they had great product. They just needed a vehicle for getting it to market," said Sacharok, who now heads Golden Valley Farms, the West Chester company that distributes Venezuelan coffee in the United States.
"Starbucks showed us customers are willing to pay $3 a cup," Sacharok said. Citgo's Venezuelan coffee and cappuccino starts at $1.09.
Citgo couldn't force its store operators to carry the coffee, company officials said.
"It's a good taste. That's the only reason I'm doing it," said Boris Berdichevsky, who runs the Brookhaven Citgo franchise and several others. "I think it's better than Colombian."
Bankruptcy bargains
When I worked in New York last year, the big payout for my basketball-playing sons was the cool, colorful $15 Starbury basketball sneakers I used to buy at the Steve & Barry's store in the Mall of Manhattan across from Penn Station. You couldn't get those at Payless back home.
Last week, after Steve & Barry's declared bankruptcy 23 years after its first outlet opened at Penn's West Philly campus, I took five of my children to Steve & Barry's at the Valley Forge Shopping Center - that's the neighborhood-friendly mall up Route 202 from the King of Prussia shopping complex.
We spent $150 - huge sum on any DiStefano shopping expedition - buying a half-dozen jackets, 11 pairs of Starbury basketball and skater-dude shoes, a couple of hats, and a goofy T-shirt. In short, they're having a big sale and are not out of business.
The hardworking clerk told my wife that staffers assume they're keeping their jobs; they hadn't been told otherwise.
And that's the first thing to remember about companies that file for bankruptcy protection from their creditors: Suppliers, customers and creditors often have an interest in keeping them open.
We're not sure what's going to happen to all of Metromedia Group's Bennigan's and Steak & Ale restaurants after the chain declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy yesterday in its native Texas. Some will close; others run by franchisees will likely stay open. At least one Philadelphia-area investor, we hear, is looking at acquiring some of the assets.
A visit to federal Bankruptcy Court may be bad news for creditors, investors and mall owners. They'll share the pain, which could spread through the economy if it gets a lot worse.
But consumers, tenants and others in the market will find some bargains before the weakest chains are done reorganizing.

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