Every person – foreigner or Costa Rican national – who enters and exits Costa Rica through its principal international airport, Juan Santamaría, northwest of San José, walks past Café Britt souvenir stores. Often, and especially during the tourism high season, those stores are packed with people sipping free samples of Café Britt coffee or plucking chocolate-covered local delicacies from sample cups as they browse books and magazines and peruse shelf after shelf of souvenirs.
Beginning as a small coffee roaster more than 20 years ago, Café Britt has grown exponentially and expanded its reach into different markets (it recently opened stores in Peru and Curacao, launched a clothing brand and distributes hotel supplies, among other operations).
Not all are pleased with its success, however. Accusations of unfair business practices – such as copying Costa Rican crafts and having them made in China – and a virtual monopoly on the souvenir market in Costa Rica have recently surfaced.
Made in China?
Rita Mix, a potter from San Ramón de Tres Ríos, east of San José, once sold ceramic coffee and beer mugs in a souvenir store at the JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport.
But after the operation of the airport was contracted out to Alterra Partners in 2001, Café Britt bid for and won the sole concession to the airport’s souvenir stores.
After Café Britt took over, Mix said, it changed the rules, made artisans bring their products to a central warehouse and charged them for storage, shipping and barcodes for the individual products.
She said she submitted samples of her work to go in the store, but doubted if they were ever displayed after friends told her they didn’t see them on the shelves. Mix couldn’t check because the stores are in an area of the airport where only ticketed travelers can enter. Café Britt later returned the samples, she claimed, telling her they didn’t sell.
“Then they went to China and bought mugs with a decal that said Costa Rica or had a frog or something similar to what I was trying to do,”Mix said.
Similar complaints were aired on a Channel 7 TV news report in December 2005, where various Costa Rican artisans claimed that Britt was copying their products, such as refrigerator magnets, and having them made in China.
Most Items Made Here
According to Café Britt founder Steve Aronson’s son, Philippe Aronson, who oversees Café Britt’s souvenir stores, and all other day-to-day commercial operations, the company has never taken the design of local artisans and had it copied and manufactured in China.
“That’s one of the allegations in the papers and we’ve never done that,” he said. “The complaints that were orchestrated are not from artisans. They were actually from merchants that are our competition.”
Aronson, 30, readily admits that Café Britt does sell some souvenirs manufactured in Indonesia and China, such as shot glasses, metal key chains, coffee mugs and baseball caps.
But excluding products such as books, magazines and commercial candy bars, Aronson said, 90% of the sales in Café Britt souvenir stores are products made in Costa Rica. He defends the imported products by pointing out the difference between the local artisan crafts and the manufactured products.
“Even if this was made here, it wouldn’t be made by an artisan,” he said, holding a small metal key chain with a logo reading Costa Rica. “And I don’t think it’s good for Costa Rica to start producing key chains, but that’s something we need to have in the shops.”
Aronson explained that Café Britt has begun labeling all souvenirs with the country where they were made, in part because of the bad press.
“We’re the only retailer in Costa Rica that’s doing that,” he added. “We decided to just so nobody feels that they’re getting fooled.”
Consumers won’t see the stickers on every product in the stores just yet, he added, because products with the old stickers are still on the shelves, but will be replaced as they sell.
Too Much Market?
The company’s dominance in the souvenir market has also drawn accusations of unfair advantage and even monopoly.
According to Mix, with Britt’s control of the only souvenir shops at the Juan Santamaría airport, as well as souvenir shops in several of the country’s largest hotels in Costa Rica (Four Seasons, Marriott, Allegro Papagayo, Tabacón) has limited the market for artisans who don’t sell to Café Britt.
“People have disappeared from the market,” she said.
Exacerbating the situation for the critics, Café Britt recently bid for the concession to the souvenir stores at two of Costa Rica’s major national parks: Poás Volcano and Irazú Volcano.
However, this wide distribution is a favorable aspect for other artisans.
“Yes, they have a complete monopoly. If someone wants to come (into the market) and doesn’t work with them, they can forget it,” said Lorenz Lill, an Austrian artisan who has been in Costa Rica for 35 years and sells pencils made from coffee plants to Café Britt. “But, on the other hand, it favors me personally. I don’t have to go all over the country, because they distribute. They are in all the strategic points.”
Aronson, however, played down Café Britt’s control of the market.
“We have 16 shops that are run by us and there are over 300 gift shops in the country, so we have a very, very small amount of the market,” he said.
Aronson says many of the complaints against Britt likely come from people whose products weren’t good enough to get picked up by Café Britt.
“Any artisan that does high quality stuff knows that they can come to us and we’ll buy pretty much whatever they have or whatever they can sell us,” he said.
Such is the case of Isidro Vargas, a woodcarver who lives in Ciudad Colón, southwest of San José. Aronson explained that after hearing about Vargas, he had to “beg him for a year” to sell to Café Britt, because he had already promised his production to other buyers. Now, Café Britt buys most of what Vargas makes, and Vargas has stopped selling to many other distributors and buyers in the country.
“We don’t even ask him what he’s making,” Aronson said. “He just brings it in and it sells.”
Vargas is happy with the deal, he told The Tico Times.
“They allow me to develop a lot of abilities, and allow me to do a lot of things,” he said.
Another satisfied artisan is Marina Lázaro, who is part of a group of six indigenous women on the Boruca Indigenous Reserve in southern Costa Rica. Lázaro told The Tico Times that her group has been selling to Café Britt for six years.
“We have always received fair treatment,” Lázaro said, adding that Café Britt pays them more every year for the traditional crafts the group produces. “We can count on this market.
We know that every month they are going to buy a large quantity from us, in the high season and the low season.”
Aronson says that when people say Café Britt doesn’t support local artisans, he takes it personally. In fact, he says, he has even helped finance artisans to buy equipment and improve their workshops so they can keep up with Café Britt’s demand.
But he admits mistakes have been made.
“We’re not a perfect company. We make mistakes sometimes. If we know about them, we can correct them,” he said. “I think we made a lot more mistakes four and a half years ago when we were beginning… I think we make a lot less mistakes now.”