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Carlton: Ybor City to lose that distinctive, century-old smell of roasting coffee

Naviera Coffee Mills, which has operated in Ybor City since 1921 and has filled the local air with the aroma of freshly roasted coffee, has outgrown its current home and will be relocating to a larger facility in east Tampa. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
Naviera Coffee Mills, which has operated in Ybor City since 1921 and has filled the local air with the aroma of freshly roasted coffee, has outgrown its current home and will be relocating to a larger facility in east Tampa. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Feb. 22, 2017

The smell is rich, warm, slightly nutty — almost but not quite burned. It's a smell that is as much a part of Ybor City as the roosters that strut with impunity across its historic brick streets, as Ybor as a pressed Cuban and a steamy cup of cafe con leche.

Some mornings, this particular aroma drifts west into downtown Tampa, warming a city just waking up. If I'm lucky, it wafts over to my neighborhood not far away — the distinctive scent of Naviera coffee beans roasting in the mill as they have in this town for nearly a century.

So is it weird to be sad about a smell because it's about to disappear?

Smells can take you back. They can pick you up and deposit you right where you once were. Jean Nate after-bath splash is the 1970s scent of my mother, gone for years now. Overblown gardenias are my grandmother's Miami back yard. A slight whiff of mildew is summer and that uncomfortable puffy orange life jacket you had to wear if you were a kid on our family boat.

The old Naviera Coffee Mills — on Ybor's main drag of Seventh Avenue, and family-owned and operated for generations — is leaving Ybor City. As the Times' Paul Guzzo reports, the 6,000-square-foot building where workers roast, grind and pack those magic beans that are now sold across the country has become too small for the work they do.

The little coffee shop out front where I stopped to buy a pound of fresh-ground is already closed. Naviera will move later this year to a building four times as big in east Tampa. Only the Columbia Restaurant and La Segunda Bakery — home of some of the best Cuban bread you will ever have the good fortune to place upon your tongue — are older than Naviera, which was established in 1921.

It's progress, I guess.

It's also a loss for Ybor, Tampa's Latin quarter with its rich Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrant history. Ybor has been cigar factories and devil crabs and, in its latest incarnation, good restaurants, tattoo parlors, bands and bars. There is a flavor of old Key West in its quirk (and its roosters) and of New Orleans in its wrought-iron balconies and party vibe. But nowhere else is Ybor, really.

Yes, every decent-sized city has its unmentionable scents — of garbage, too many people, dank polluted waters and God knows what steaming out of those New York hot dog carts. We're talking about the good smells here.

Ybor smells of coffee, cigars, and when you are near certain restaurants, an abundance of garlic and onions. I am appalled — appalled! — when Richard Gonzmart, of the historic Columbia and other notable restaurants, tells me a few people who have moved into burgeoning Ybor complain about the roasting coffee and sizzling garlic smells.

And you moved to Ybor City why, exactly?

Gonzmart, who serves Naviera blends at his businesses, tells me coffee is in his blood for generations. He helped roast it himself in Ybor in his younger days, the smell permeating his skin. "I loved it," he says, "but I was dating my wife-to-be and she said I smelled a little funny." Now there's an olfactory memory for you.

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Fourth-generation Naviera owner Danilo Fernandez Jr. told the Times he would like to keep a presence in Ybor, with talk of maybe roasting some beans in the building's next incarnation. That would be nice, though not what it once was, those great clouds of morning drifting across a city.

"It's very sad," Patrick Manteiga, publisher of the trilingual newspaper La Gaceta, says of the loss of that distinctive smell. "I think it's been around longer than the chickens."

Contact Sue Carlton at carlton@tampabay.com.

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