Perfecting Delivery of the Brown Nectar!

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

10 November 2014

I suspect that some non-zero percentage of my blood is coffee (albeit decaf).  I had my first latte during my first major job interview and never looked back.  The good news is that I am from a town where everyone else probably has similar coffee blood chemistry.

You see, in Seattle (the city with the highest per capita coffee consumption in the world), we have coffee shops almost every 10 feet.  Many are Starbucks, but a lot are also independent small coffee shops with micro-roasters.  Obtaining one’s coffee is more ritual than anything else – no matter where you obtain it – or even if you make it at home.

The coffee culture has also become an integral part of the economic ecosystem.  It’s amazing to see the number of startups and other businesses created and/or run out of coffee shops.  This trend is also found in most major innovation centers in the country – New York, Boston, Austin, and, of course, Silicon Valley (to name a few).  What’s unclear to me is which fuels which – does the business of the innovators/entrepreneurs fuel the coffee shop boom? Or do the coffee shops fuel the innovation/entrepreneurship?  You tell me!

Digging into who/what is at the heart of those coffee shops – you find that, in many cases, it’s Swiss-made coffee/espresso machines.  In fact, this summer, I nearly choked on my morning coffee when I read a story about a little company in Weggis who provides ALL of the espresso machines for Starbucks worldwide.

Coming from Seattle, the home of Starbucks, and being a lover of the brown nectar, I had no choice – a visit was a must do.

This past week, my husband and I finally did that visit to Thermoplan – a company in Weggis – in the shadow of Lake Lucerne.  They have been the exclusive manufacturer of Starbucks’ store machines since they won a showdown versus other machine makers in 1999.

We were immediately struck, not just by the impeccable building design, but by their meticulous and impressive futbol field juxtaposed to the building and that the field had quite an auspicious crew looking down from a nearby billboard.  Turns out that Domenic Steiner created a world class futbol field and then invited the Brazilian national team to practice there in 2006.  A poster of that team presides over the field.  In this small town, it apparently caused quite a stir – with thousands showing up to watch their practice  – exploring their inner Brazilian – dancing, celebrating, and being generally festive.  Here’s a story from back then about the excitement.  More recently, before the 2014 World Cup, the Swiss national team also practiced there.

Needless to say – we were impressed, not just by the quality of the field, but by the dedication of Thermoplan’s leadership to engage with and support their community.

The company itself represents a terrific blend of tradition and innovation (a lot like Switzerland overall).  The pictures below will help you join on the tour that was led by employee Reto Guegler as well as Adrian and Domenic Steiner  At the end, we were joined by Esther Steiner co-founder of Thermoplan, wife of Domenic, and mother of Adrian.  With an incredible presence, she is clearly a core part of the leadership and stability of the company.  Here’s some of what we learned over the course of our visit:

  • Starbucks is certainly a large % of their business – but not all of it.  They have distribution all over the world for their machines.  Other major customers include Costa Coffee (in the UK), Nestlé, etc…
  • Theirs’ are only for business/industrial usage – no personal/home machines.
    All of their manufacturing is done in Weggis – with their approximately 200 employees.
  • Service, on the other hand is contracted out to thousands of specialists around the world.  It is Interesting to think about the employment halo that Thermoplan, therefore, supports.  In other words – the work of their approx. 200 employees in Switzerland, generate livelihoods for thousands of others around the globe – nevermind for the baristas using their machines to produce a great cup of coffee.
  • To make service easier and to maximize uptime and availability of the machines, they have made the machines very modular so that they can swap out component systems without having to deconstruct the whole machine.
  • To get a sense of their scale – Thermoplan’s approx 200 employees produce 20,000 machines a year.  Also – with 20,000 Starbucks in the United States alone, Thermoplan has a footprint of over 40,000 machines in the U.S. alone!

I hope this gives you more appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes into your favorite coffee beverage – no matter who the machine manufacturer is!