Alfred Peet, founder of Peet’s Coffee
Alfred Peet, who is generally credited with creating the craft coffee business in the United States, was born in Alkmaar, The Netherlands, on 10 March, 1920. His father ran a small coffee roastery there before World War II. During the war, Peet lived in London. Following the war, Peet left London, where he had apprenticed with a coffee and tea company, and worked as a tea taster in the Dutch East Indies and New Zealand before emigrating to San Francisco in 1955, where he worked in the coffee importing industry.
After becoming dismayed at the poor quality of coffee in the United States (according to Peet, the reason that the quality of coffee was so bad in the USA is that people were still drinking World War II style “rationed” coffee), he opened his own coffee store in Berkeley, California, in 1966. New stores soon followed in Oakland, Mill Valley and Menlo Park. Today, there are Peet’s locations up and down the West Coast and scattered across the country to the East Coast, but the heaviest concentration of Peet’s units remains in Northern California. Of course, there is a website: Peets.com
The original Berkeley store, at Walnut and Vine, is still open and is viewed by many in the San Francisco Bay Area as being the cornerstone of Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto”. Alice Waters’ famous Chez Panisse is around the corner and a few doors up from Peet’s original shop.
Above: Alfred Peet with bags of green coffee. Below: Peet cupping coffee in Kenya
Peet taught his style of roasting beans to Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker, who took the technique to Seattle and founded Starbucks in 1971. Among coffee historians, Peet is labeled as “the Dutchman who taught America how to drink coffee.
Peet sold the business in 1979 to Sal Bonavita and remained a mentor and teacher to Sal for the next five years.
An interview with Alfred Peet is included in the documentary “Coffee Culture USA” released in 2008.
After retiring from the coffee business, Peet moved in 2001 to Ashland, Oregon, where he died on August 29, 2007, at age 87.
After Alfred Peet left the company he founded, the company embarked on a period of rapid growth. They built a new automated roasting facility at Harbor Bay in Alameda, CA and pushed hard into the packaged coffee business in supermarkets. In doing so, the company got away from its origin as a craft roaster. Quality suffered and the chief roaster left in disgust and founded his own craft roasting business. Alfred Peet must have been spinning in his grave at what had become of the business he founded.
Starbucks made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to buy the company, lusting after Peet’s retail distribution channel, which was better developed than Starbucks’. Peet’s loyalists, while dismayed at the company’s decline in craft roasting, were outraged that Peet’s might be acquired by Starbucks.
Following Starbucks’ failed effort to acquire Peet’s, the British-Dutch consumer goods company, Reckitt-Benckiser acquired Peet’s. Given that Reckitt-Benckiser is a retail consumer goods company, many feared that Peet’s would completely get away from the craft roasting of top quality coffee that Alfred Peet had founded the company on. To their great credit, Reckitt-Benckiser has restored Peet’s as a top-quality roaster of coffee. Reckitt-Benckiser is freshening the Peet’s retail stores and has continued to emphasize offering freshly roasted coffee beans packaged to order in the stores. Alfred Peet must be resting in peace once again.
And now, before I go pour myself another cup of Peet’s Anniversary Blend: