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Peet's Coffee: A Rich Company History

Alfred Peet works at his shop, Peet's Coffee in Berkeley, on May 4, 1973.

When Alfred Peet moved to San Francisco in 1955, two scents predominated the waterfront: fish and coffee. The fish might have been delicious, but the coffee was swill.

“I came to the richest country in the world, so why are they drinking the lousiest coffee?” Peet said of the ubiquitous Hills Brothers and Folgers coffee brands, then based in the city. His discontent became our win, since the Dutch immigrant went on to create Peet’s Coffee.

Founded in Berkeley in 1966, the brand, which bills itself as “The Original Craft Coffee,” has been credited with revolutionizing the way Americans consume coffee, and for good reason—all three founders of Starbucks learned the trade from Peet.

For the first year and a half of its existence, Starbucks bought beans directly from Peet’s to sell in its Seattle store, according to James Reynolds, former coffee roastmaster at Starbucks and coffee roastmaster emeritus of Peet’s.

“We had copied Peet’s. The whole place was modeled after what Alfred had done,” Starbucks founder Jerry Baldwin told Jasper Houtman, the author of The Coffee Visionary: The Life & Legacy of Alfred Peet.

Peet’s has since swelled to become part of the world’s largest publicly traded coffee company, JDE Peet’s, having acquired Mighty Leaf, Stumptown and Intelligentsia Coffee in the U.S. before being purchased by JDE.

It's now launching its first ever to-go concept at the Peet’s location on Montgomery Street, where the store will be designed specifically around mobile orders—a far cry from the sip-and-linger vibe of a neighborhood café.

“It’s a result of consumer’s shifting habits, especially in San Francisco,” said Lorna Bush, a public relations representative for Peet’s, who noted the redesigned space would allow employees to focus exclusively on making drinks instead of tending to a café.

But would Alfred Peet, the venerated coffee guru who once had the uninitiated sitting at his feet (literally) for instruction and urged roasters to “listen to the beans,” approve of a sprawling brand with a to-go approach? The historical record suggests he might be just as disappointed by his namesake company’s expansive reach as he was with the watery coffee he first encountered upon moving to the Bay Area.

“The bigger a company grows and the more products it offers,” Peet told the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, “the higher the chance that the quality of the product declines.”

The Singular Vision of Alfred Peet

Despite Peet’s global reach—with cafes from Shanghai to Dubai—for some, the brand holds on to its local vibe within the coffee conglomerate of which it is part.

“There's a kind of a loyalty to Peet’s in the Bay Area that goes beyond its international reach,” said Kenneth Davids, editor-in-chief of Coffee Review, who noted that savvy young coffee connoisseurs still think of Peet’s as a cut above other craft java.

The company has also had an incredible consistency, with only three roastmasters in its entire 57-year history: Alfred Peet, James Reynolds and Doug Welsh, the latter of who started as a customer, then became a barista and worked his way up the corporate ladder to senior vice president and roastmaster.

Despite the fact that Starbucks was initially modeled after Peet’s, the two companies have different company cultures, according to Reynolds. The Starbucks empire was built upon savvy marketing designed to make customers feel they are part of an elite club, while people fall in love with Peet’s because of its perceived authenticity.

You can see the distinction playing out by comparing the first Starbucks location in Seattle—which is constantly thronged with tourists taking selfies and buying commemorative mugs—to the original Peet’s, which is still in operation at the intersection of Vine and Walnut in Berkeley. It’s a regular café, where you can grab a cup, relax at an open table and check out the small museum in the back. Some of the location’s original customers still frequent the spot to this day.

Craft Gone Corporate

According to Pendergrast, Peet’s is well positioned within the coffee industry. He views its merger with the Dutch coffee brand Douwe Egberts and its expansion into China as promising signs for the Peet's brand. Coffee consumption itself continues to climb—2% per year, according to Welsh—which gives Peet’s a baked-in advantage to source new customers.

Yet many craft practices are still in play at Peet’s, even with the company’s growth. Every coffee the business sells—from China to the United Arab Emirates—is selected and tasted in the cupping room in Emeryville, which is named in honor of roastmaster emeritus James Reynolds.

Despite Peet’s morphing into a sprawling corporate entity, one feature synonymous with the brand has held true, even for Land: quality.

“It’s genuinely good coffee,” Land said. “And that keeps its customers loyal.”

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