It occurred to me that I have been in most of the places where specialty coffee, as we know it in the US today, was introduced and took root.
I have been a coffee afficianado (“snob” might be too strong a term) since the early 1970s when I was introduced to amazing coffee in Berkekey CA.
There’s a Caribou not too far from here, and while sipping a café au lait there (or ole, as the natives might say) I got to wondering when and where that chain had begun its ascent. The answer is 1992, at 44th and France in Edina MN. I’ve been in that Caribou too.
Also nearby my house in Mac-Groveland, St. Paul is a Dunn Bros coffee shop at Grand and Snelling. (We were there for breakfast at 6:30 this morning.) That location, it turns out, was the original Dunn Bros, founded in 1987.
Going back to 1974: George Howell started The Coffee Connection in The Garage in Harvard Square, Cambridge MA. Been in that one too.
1971: Starbucks opened for business at 102 Pike Street in Seattle, at the Pike Place Market. Yup, been there.
1966: Peet’s Coffee, Tea & Spices started up Walnut and Vine, North Berkeley CA. I moved to Berkeley in 1970 and soon got acquainted with Peet’s; by 1973 I was living just a few blocks away from the mother store and was in there rather a lot before moving to Massachusetts in 1976. I bought a Chemex drip coffee maker and used it for the next several decades.
The history of these coffee institutions is somewhat intertwined and is remarkably twisty. It goes like this.
Peet’s: Alfred Peet, a Dutchman who moved to San Francisco from England in 1955, was appalled at the (lack of) quality and flavor in the coffee he was offered in restaurants, cafés, and stores. He had grown up in The Netherlands helping his father in the coffee import business. I’ve read that Americans had appreciated good coffee at various points in their history, but that the taste for it pretty much died out during the rationing of WW-II.
Peet opened his eponymous shop in the north of Berkeley in 1966, and he roasted coffee unlike anything you could get elsewhere in the country at the time. He sourced the finest coffees from South America, the Pacific, Africa, and the Caribbean, and he roasted it dark. At first Peet sold only beans and sternly instructed his customers as to how it was to be prepared; he brewed coffee only to demonstrate the beans. After a few years he began serving coffee by the cup. You could get it to go dripped in a Chemex or brewed in a French press.
By 1969 a devoted following was hanging around Walnut and Vine. They were called the Peetnicks. Numbered among them were people with a refined palette and high expectations for the food they ate, as well as the coffee they drank. Today we would call them “foodies.” Some of them started businesses within a block or two of Peet’s: The Cheese Board, Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie, Cocolat, Poulet, and, in 1975, Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse. The area was dubbed the “Gourmet Ghetto” in 1979.
Alfred Peet opened three more Peet’s stores in the Bay Area and in 1979 sold the chain to Sal Bonavita, staying on as a consultant until 1984, at which point Jerry Baldwin and partners bought the business. Remember that name, you will be seeing it again. Alfred Peet died in 2007.
Peet’s now has around 200 outlets in the US.
Starbucks: Today’s largest chain of coffee shops (numbering over 25,000 in 2015) was started up in Seattle in 1971 by Jerry Baldwin and two buddies, all of whom knew and respected Mr. Peet. In fact Baldwin had worked in the original Peet’s in 1970. For its first year, Starbucks sourced all of its coffee beans from Alfred Peet.
After buying Peet’s from Bonavita in 1984, Baldwin and his other investors sold Starbucks in 1987 to Howard Schultz, its current president. Schultz and Baldwin entered into a 4-year non-compete agreement for the Bay Area. Baldwin remained chairman of Peet’s until it went public in 2001.
Coffee Connection: This chain’s founder, George Howell, did not work for Alfred Peet, but he hung out at Walnut and Vine enough to qualify him as a Peetnick. When he and his wife drove across the country in 1974 to relocate to the Boston area, Howell took a supply of Peet’s beans, a grinder, and a French press on the road with them. The couple stayed in Howard Johnson’s motor lodges across the country (as did I when I moved to Massachusetts two years later). Howell would grind beans in the men’s room (“leaving it smelling better than when I came in,” he has recalled) and ask at the restaurant counter for boiling water for 35¢. He would brew coffee whose aroma always drew a sizable crowd of the curious and the intrigued. Howell had no idea yet that he would get into the coffee business.
Howell’s Coffee Connection had 24 stores in the Boston area by the time Starbucks was ready to expand there, in 1994. I extrapolate that Schultz’s chain had about 150 stores then. I well remember the widespread expectation of a dramatic, head-to-head showdown between the two firms of specialty coffee fanatics. But Howell sold out to Starbuck’s before the battle could be well joined.
The Starbucks Frappuccino that you may know and love (or not) was invented by Howell at the Coffee Connection.
I continued to drink Howell’s coffee in the Boston exurbs for the next 20 years, after he founded the George Howell “Terroir” Coffee Company and sold beans in gourmet outlets in a few towns near me.
Dunn. Bros: The eponymous brothers Ed and Dan started roasting and selling coffee beans at 1569 Grand Avenue in 1987. In each store they opened the coffee was roasted in-store and usually on a daily basis. (Peet’s, and later the Coffee Connection, had established the practice of roast-dating the beans they sold, and Dunn Bros. followed this model.)
By 1994 Dunn Bros branched out with a franchise business. Their first franchisees, the partnership of Chris Eilers and Skip Fay, purchased the rights to franchise the system themselves in 1998. Today Dunn Bros has around 90 outlets across the Midwest, 74 of them in the Metro. The chain has been cited 10 times by City Pages as the best cup of coffee in the Twin Cities.
Caribou: This chain’s origin story is a feel-good tale of a couple of newlyweds inspired by nature on an Alaskan adventure to open a coffee shop. This was 1992. John and Kim Puckett may have been better dreamers than managers. The chain struggled in the early 90s with operational issues and investors were getting antsy. In 1996 and 1997 Caribou brought in industry veterans from PepsiCo and McDonalds to get the business on track; but it ran out of cash in 2000. So 70% of Caribou was sold to Crescent Capital of Atlanta GA, an investment firm backed by First Islamic Bank of Bahrain. That connection led to some unease about possibly doing business with funders of Islamic extremists, and the Internet rumor authority Snopes says there was some reason to worry, in the early 2000s.
Those investors cashed out in 2005 when Caribou went public.
Enter JAB: Caribou continued expanding and was bought in December 2012 by JAB Holding Company, the investment arm of the billionaire Reimann family of Germany, heirs to the German consumer goods company Joh. A. Benckiser GmbH. JAB also controls Jacobs Douwe Egberts, a multinational coffee powerhouse in 18 countries outside the US.
Interestingly, that same German group had bought a controlling interest in Peet’s in July 2012 for almost $1 billion.
In April 2013, Caribou (which continued to run independently) announced that it would close 80 stores across 10 states and rebrand 88 others to Peet’s Coffee & Tea shops, pulling back to a footprint in six midwestern states plus North Carolina, Denver CO, and 10 foreign countries. It’s not clear to me whether this retrenchment was prompted by JAB, or not.
Caribou now has about 600 locations.
Within the month of October last year, Peet’s Coffee & Tea announced the acquisition (with terms undisclosed) of Stumptown Coffee of Portland OR and Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea. Both continue to operate as before.
And in December 2015 JAB Holding Company bought Keurig Green Mountain for $13.9 billion. Keurig is the popularizer of the single-serving coffee pods now cluttering landfills around the world (9 billion of them in 2014).
In 2009, a then-independent Peet’s had bid for the owner of Keurig against Green Mountain, and lost. With its rival in charge of determining who would get to package their coffee in K-Cups, Peet’s was unable to sell the single-serve coffee pods until a certain seminal patent expired in September 2012, 2 months after the JAB acquisition.
The Twin Cities, and St. Paul’s Mac-Groveland in particular, offer a wide range of high-quality options for coffee beans and/or the coffee shop experience. Since arriving here, for beans to grind at home we have been making the rounds of Dunn Bros, Caribou, Espresso Royale, Coffee Bene, and the J & S Bean Factory. (We haven’t yet tried the beans from Cahoots on Selby.) My decades-long choice for a house blend from Peet’s has been half-and-half Mocha Java and French roast. In the interest of ready comparison, I try to come close to that blend whomever the supplier. None has disappointed so far. Dunn Bros has an edge, perhaps, offering as they do multiple varieties of beans in French roast.