Today’s Wall Street Journal published an article on Illycaffè‘s quiet expansion in the U.S. coffeehouse market: Illy Uses Backdoor to Take On Starbucks in U.S. –

Anytime someone tries to sell coffee in this country, the knee-jerk media presumption is that they’re going to “Take On Starbucks“™. Illy has always publicly stated that they would never expand at the expense of their quality controls — an area where Starbucks spectacularly self-imploded. That gross oversimplification aside, Illy is expanding its reach by signing exclusive, three-year service-and-supply contracts with select independent cafés across the country.

Our recently-posted review of Caffè Cento is one such example. (With echoes of the Illy sponsorship behind the Gambero Rosso’s annual Bar d’Italia guide.) In contrast to the overtly Illy-branded Espressamente café chain, three years ago Illy kicked off the “Artisti del Gusto” program for cafés in Italy. It has since come to the U.S. within the past year.

Illy branding at Caffè CentoThe idea behind the program is that Illy provides the espresso machines, coffee cups, artwork, and training. Once the café earns Illy certification, it must agree to exclusively serve Illy coffee for at least three years — which is typically offered at a premium price over other roasted coffee sources.

The article mentions Caffè Greco in North Beach, which supposedly increased sales by 10% and profits by 3% since signing up to the Illy program last year. However, Caffè Greco has been serving Illy coffee since since we started tracking them on this Web site in 2003.

Yet what Illy is doing is really little different than the quality controls required by the likes of Blue Bottle Coffee Company and other area purveyors. For example, besides offering training standards, Blue Bottle requires that locations carrying their coffee rotate their coffee supplies at a minimum of once every two weeks.