Thursday, August 6, 2009

Juan Valdez: The Most Famous Colombian

The story of the most famous Colombian of them all -- Juan Valdez

By Dennis D. Jacobs - Chicago International Travel Examiner

I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

Juan Valdez, the one Colombian most Americans can probably name, is not a native Colombian.

Shocking, I know.

It turns out Juan was born in New York City in 1960. You probably thought he was older than 49, too. It seems like he should be. After all, we’ve been watching Juan and his faithful mule, Conchita, bringing the coffee beans down from the mountains of Colombia for years and years.

Juan Valdez was not born in a hospital, but in the offices of the DDB ad agency. The “Mad Men” there created Juan for one of their clients, the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, which was founded in 1927.

The idea behind the ad campaign, which became one of the most successful and long-running in history, was to distinguish coffee made with 100 percent Colombian coffee beans from those using coffee beans from other countries.

From 1960 to 1969, Juan Valdez was portrayed by José Duval, who was not Colombian. He was born in Havana, Cuba and came to the United States at the age of 20 to pursue a career as an opera singer. He appeared in a touring production of “Die Fledermaus” for New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and then branched out into musical theater and movies. He died in 1993 at the age of 72.

From 1970 to 2006, Juan Valdez was portrayed by Carlos Sanchez, who grew up in the Colombian town of Fredonia in the coffee-growing region of Antioquia.

The new Juan Valdez is Carlos Castañeda, a coffee grower from the town of Andes, also in Antioquia.

Although Juan Valdez has helped establish the idea that coffee made from Colombian beans is the best in the world, until recently coffee actually sold in Colombia was not considered very good.

“We had outstanding quality coffee, but we had no idea how to drink it,” explains Harry Sasson, Colombia’s foremost chef.

He says coffee traditionally was free in restaurants and was drip coffee. Also, all the best coffee beans were exported. That is changing, and again Juan Valdez has a role.

Taking a page from Starbuck’s, the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia opened its first Juan Valdez Café in Bogota in 2002. Its success led to its expansion to Medellin, Cali, and other Colombian cities. The first Juan Valdez Café in the United States opened in 2005.

“Juan Valdez is incredible what they’ve done,” says Sasson, who owns and operates five restaurants in Colombia.

Restaurants in Colombia have had to upgrade the quality of the coffee they serve to their customers. Sasson says they’ve brought in Italian technology to create espressos and cappuccinos.

“I buy my coffee for some of my restaurants straight from the farms,” he notes. “We try to get the money for the growers.”

Thanks in no small part to Juan Valdez, Colombia’s coffee growers continue to thrive. Almost 15 percent of the country’s population depends on coffee for their livelihood and there are more than 500,000 coffee growers in the nation.

Discover The Transformation of Medellin, Colombia (click)

Juan Valdez Coffee (click)

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