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Caffè Nero looks to make a splash with first CT store in Darien

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Although it operates 940 stores worldwide, most of them in its native U.K., Caffè Nero has been a nonentity in Connecticut — at least until last month.

Opening at 1071 Boston Post Road in Darien on Dec. 17, the European-style coffee house — its name means “black coffee” in Italian — has been “doing really well so far,” according to Caffè Nero Americas head of marketing Jeff Cotter. “It’s been meeting our expectations, and the consumer feedback has been very positive.”

Caffee NeroThe 1,700-square-foot location is not just the chain’s first Connecticut store, but also its first in the U.S. outside of the Boston area. A presence there since mid-2014, Caffè Nero now operates about 25 stores throughout Massachusetts.

“Boston was seen as a natural first step into the U.S.,” Cotter said. “There’s that whole old-world European vibe there. It was a fairly easy decision for Gerry to make.”

Not to be confused with the late president, Nero founder, chairman and CEO Gerry Ford created the coffee house in 1990, patterned after traditional Italian cafés throughout Europe designed to sell high-quality coffee — some items top $10 — and serve as neighborhood meeting spots. In addition to the expected range of cappuccinos, espressos, lattes, cortados and the like, Nero also sells pastries, yogurt, sandwiches and, in recognition of its British background, porridge.

More than doubling its number of U.K. and Ireland stores from 2007 to 2017 to 650, Nero is now the third-largest U.K. coffee shop chain — well behind the 2,000-plus operated by market leader Costa Coffee, which is being acquired by Coca-Cola, but within shouting distance of No. 2 Starbucks’ 900.

Nevertheless, the chain is undertaking its U.S. expansion very carefully, according to Cotter.

“We’re not out to open as many cafés as we can,” he declared. “We want our growth here to be organic, and by design it will continue to be slow.”

Discussions about dipping a toe outside Massachusetts began about 18 months ago, Cotter said. “We look at prospective markets where we believe customers appreciate our European heritage and our high-quality coffee,” he said. “We took a lot of trips to Darien and ultimately decided it was a place where we could fill a need.”

What distinguishes Nero from its competitors, he said, is that all of its coffee is made in its own roastery in London to ensure quality, and an espresso training program is offered so staff can master coffee making.

Also important is its European-style design, Cotter added, noting that the book-lined interior includes leather armchairs and booths to encourage lingering.

Cotter said there are no firm plans to open more Caffè Neros in Connecticut or beyond in the near term, but allowed that “Darien could open up opportunities for us down the road. If we think there’s a new location where we can open and succeed, we will definitely explore that.”

The Darien store is open 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends.

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