As a young boy, Fabio Guggeri’s chores included keeping the family’s stove-top Moka Express coffee pots clean, and ready for use. In a way, he never stopped.
Now a 56-year-old IT professional, Guggeri also runs a small Facebook group aimed at “everyone who prefers coffee made with a Moka.”
“All the alternatives to the Moka are designed to make coffee faster or in a more practical way,” Guggeri told Fortune. “But faster and more practical doesn’t always mean better.”
Making the highly potent coffee with a stovetop Moka pot is a sensory experience. There’s the gravely metal-on-metal sound made when the top and bottom chambers screw together. Minutes later you get the gurgling of the coffee as the boiling water bubbles up through the grinds, and the rich aroma that fills the room when the coffee is ready. Talk to any fan of the Moka coffee pots and the word “ritual” comes up over and over.
Alfonso Bialetti—an aluminum worker and tinkerer inspired by the washing machines of the day—invented the Moka Express pot in 1933. (The type of coffee the pots make should not be confused with caffè mocha, the hot drink that is a blend of hot chocolate and espresso.)
The eponymous company Bialetti founded has sold more than 200 million coffee pots since then, including the post-World War II boom years when the Bialetti Moka pot was one of the first luxury items members of the new Italian middle class allowed themselves. It is now estimated that around three in four Italian households have a Moka pot in the kitchen. The design is so iconic that it appears in the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and many other design collections around the world.
Yet in 2018, Bialetti was teetering on the brink of insolvency. The company, based in Coccaglio (around 45 miles east of Milan) was more than €70 million in debt, and suffering a slow death at the hands of faster and more convenient capsule-based coffee machines, a fast-growing market dominated by multinationals Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Kraft-Heinz, and Unilever.
Food giant Nestlé this week reported impressive quarterly sales, helped by a surge in Nespresso coffee pods as the in-home boom for a strong shot of caffeine continues under lockdown.
Bialetti is getting a big taste of this shift in coffee consumption, too. But there is a kink in Bialetti’s business strategy: Moka pots are virtually indestructible. Guggeri, for example, said he has four Moka Express pots at home, but he didn’t buy any of them. All are hand-me-downs at least 30 years old and still working as well as ever.
The coronavirus pandemic has helped Bialetti strengthen its position to a degree: with coffee bars across Italy and beyond closed or only partially open during a series of lockdowns, more people are making their coffee at home. But according to Elisa Albanese, Bialetti’s head of marketing, the company’s turnaround began before the lockdowns.
“We saw that the big coffee companies were advertising their coffee as ‘perfect for the Moka’ and we asked ourselves, who is better equipped to make coffee for the Moka than the company that invented the Moka?,” Albanese asked.
The result, she told Fortune, was to transform the company that made Mocha coffee makers and other kitchen equipment into one focused on every aspect of at-home coffee making, a makeover that is still ongoing. “We are evolving from the ‘World of the Home’ to the ‘World of Coffee’,” she said.
In business terms, that means the company has entered into the competitive ground coffee sector with a new “Perfetto Moka” brand, in addition to a range of designer mugs, cups, and other service items, coffee grinders, and even non-native coffee makers like the French Press. The company is even joining the coffee pod revolution, albeit with a Bialetti twist— the Bialetti coffee pods can be broken down into recyclable components, eliminating one of the main criticisms of other coffee pods – that they end up filling up landfills.
More products are in development, Albanese said.
Bialetti bull run
Moka Express sales are climbing. According to company data, Bialetti sold around 3.5 million units a year between 2015 and 2017, slowly rising to 4 million last year with a target of 5 million this year. Albanese said the company is regaining market share by stressing the sustainability of the coffee pots—the only waste product is the coffee grinds (which many users turn into compost); Moka Express pots don’t even have a disposable coffee filter—and marketing to a new generation of coffee drinkers who see the coffee pot as something from their parents’ or grandparents’ generation.
Investors are excited. The company is still operating in the red, but as it approaches a break-even point its shares, traded in Milan, are up nearly 130 percent over the last 12 months, and they have gained 225 percent so far this year to sit at a two-year high.
Dominic Allport, a London-based foodservice analyst with NPD Group, a consultancy, said Bialetti’s new focus on the broader coffee market has the potential to be a winning strategy.
“Smart diversification is key,” Allport told Fortune. “In this case, the Moka pot supports the image of the ground coffee, which supports the image of the other equipment. It is a wise decision not to put all the company’s eggs— or in this case, all its coffee beans—in one basket.”
According to Jake Leonti, editor of Coffee Talk Magazine, the larger consumer shift toward the nostalgic tastes of the past is working in Bialetti’s favor.
In an interview with Fortune, Leonti listed a dozen or so coffee-making systems he owns, ranging from a high-end and costly pump coffee maker to a simple French Press and pour-over system. Yet he said he still turns to his classic Moka Express with surprising frequency.
“There’s something very satisfying about using the Moka,” Leonti said. “We’re paying more attention these days to health and wellness and slow food and traditional methods. The Moka fits nicely into that context.
“I see the Moka Express coffee makers a little like vinyl records in the face of the CDs and MP3s represented by the coffee pod machines,” he said. “And we see how well vinyl is doing now.”
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