Walking into the La Marzocco distribution center and showroom, the ambiance is pretty low profile. Amidst the rows of smooth, stainless steel coffee machines, the static sound of frothing milk hangs in the air as a single cappuccino is prepared.
Positioned on a quiet corner in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, the warehouse and showroom blend into the rest of the pale, industrial strip of building.
You wouldn’t know it at first glance, but the specialty coffee machine company is something of a legend in the Emerald City. For starters, the humble Seattle warehouse is the company’s U.S. headquarters, and it functions with a handful of employees.
Hailing from Florence, La Marzocco has been creating state-of-the-art coffee machines for generations in Italy, but it was Seattle where La Marzocco made its American debut.
In 1989, when cell phones were giant metal boxes and the Windows concept was a small conversation point among techies at Seattle dinner parties, a fledgling company called Starbucks placed La Marzocco’s “Linea Classic” on their counters.
Fast forward 24 years later to last month, when La Marzocco unveiled the “Linea PB,” an updated version of the classic machine that made the company famous. It’s the first time the iconic “Linea Classic” has undergone major technological and stylistic updates since its unveiling.
U.S. Product Manager Scott Guglielmino said introducing the “Linea PB” was quite a process. Stylistically, the new machine features a lower profile than its older counterpart, which Guglielmino said would better connect the customer and barista.
On a technical note, a lot has changed as well.
“We went through and created a whole new electronics architecture,” Guglielmino said. “We have two new electronics control boards in the ‘Linea PB’ that are a first for La Marzocco.”
There’s a lot about the machine that’s brand new — an entirely redesigned hydraulics system, improved temperature control and solid state electronics, just to name a few — but it’s a balancing act.
“There’s a great deal of nostalgia and affection associated with the Linea Classic,” Guglielmino said. “So creating something that’s kind of a re-imagination is a bit of a risk for us.”
After all, it’s not easy to replace an icon that’s 25 years in the making, especially when its kickstarter looks as differently as Starbucks does today.
When Starbucks had only five retail locations, Kent Bakke was asked to repair a Faema coffee machine at one of the coffee houses. Bakke, now the CEO of La Marzocco International, was trying to distribute La Marzocco machines to a minuscule American market.
While waiting for parts to arrive, Bakke lent the shop La Marzocco’s “GS-2.” A few weeks later, he fixed up the Faema and returned it to the coffee house, but things had already changed.
“After I returned the repaired Faema, I received a call saying that the baristas were protesting the return,” Bakke said. “They missed working on the La Marzocco.”
Starbucks began working with Bakke and Marzocco exclusively and in 1989, they helped unveil the “GS-2‘s” replacement, the “Linea Classic.”
The partnership, which ended in 2005, would make the “Linea Classic” La Marzocco’s most iconic machine. Starbucks still uses a “Linea Classic” at its original location in Seattle’s Pike Place.
But as La Marzocco Director of Marketing Whitney Cornell explained, the recognition has nothing to do with the company’s size.
“People are familiar with the equipment because they see it in cafes,” she said. “So they think we’re a lot larger.”
In reality, the entire Marzocco staff could probably fit into the Ballard warehouse — there’s only 100 employees worldwide, 25 of them in the United States.
It’s part of the reason Cornell, a former Microsoft marketer, believes La Marzocco has become a Seattle company in its own respect.
“The people who pick up the phone are the same from 25 years ago,” she said. “It’s as much preserving the relationships and authenticity of the original leadership as it is evolving our thinking and continuing to be relevant.”
Cornell is right. In Florence, the company’s lead designer is 79-year-old Piero Bambi, who continues to spearhead the design process of every machine, including the “Linea PB” and the “Linea Classic.”
And here in Seattle, Bakke is still doing the same thing he was when Starbucks was just a local company — the only difference is a few new employees and a lot more recognition.
The company still manufactures its machines by hand in Florence. In the United States, shipments, prototype testing, and machine personalizations are conducted for the American market — all from the Ballard warehouse.
See more photos from the warehouse below:
Previously on GeekWire: Going digital: Starbucks ‘Pick of the Week’ card now available through iOS app
Alisa Reznick is a University of Washington student working as an editorial intern at GeekWire this quarter. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AlisaReznick.