PRELUDE: Coffee is rather a basic pleasure.
If you like coffee, you don’t get up every morning and say, “Am I going to have coffee today?” You might say, “Am I going to have a glass of wine?” But if you like coffee, it’s just automatic. Coffee is a real part of people’s lives. They might have something different for breakfast every morning but coffee is a constant.
You do think about the part that you play in people’s lives — that you’ve got thousands of people drinking coffee that you roasted. It’s an interesting kind of expansion of yourself — realizing that some of the people you might know, but a lot of the people you would have no earthly idea who they are, where they are, what they’re doing, what their lives are about.
With forty-two years of the store being substantially like it’s always been, you’ll have people walk back in here who have not been in Austin for 25 years and it’s like this store and the state capital are the only things that have not changed.
IN THE BEGINNING
How did you decide that you were going to become a coffee roaster?
There was little coffee store called Georgetown Coffee in Washington, DC. Walking in to Georgetown Coffee was very exciting. There were these great aromas. And of course being right in the middle of Georgetown, there was a frenetic amount of business. Add to this the atmosphere of Georgetown, all combined, it was different from anything I’d ever experienced. I guess that was the seed of it. But my career in politics needed to end before I was ready to try opening a coffee store.
Your political career?
I studied journalism in college. Eventually, I came to work on the Texas gubernatorial campaign for Don Yarborough. During that campaign I got to know U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough, who asked me if I wanted to come to work for him. So I went to Washington. I spent time in the state office in Austin, too. That is how I first came to know Austin.
In 1970, Senator Yarborough was defeated. So I moved to Austin full-time. I became campaign manager for Austin City Councilman, Dick Nichols. Then became press secretary for Sissy Farenthold’s Texas gubernatoral campaign. Farenthold, a tough, sophisticated and intelligent politician, wound up in a run-off against Doc Briscoe. Briscoe won. And that was the end of my career in politics.
Obviously I needed something to do. Remembering the Georgetown coffee store, I had an instinct about opening a coffee store myself. There was one coffee store in Houston over in the “The Quadrangle,” another in Dallas, and Dakota Coffee Company in San Angelo. As far as I knew – that was basically it for good coffee in Texas.
I started looking around for suppliers of equipment, and a source for for roasted coffee. I had absolutely no business experience. None. I was not raised in a family where there was any entrepreneurial instinct.
One of the companies I contacted was Chemex Coffee Makers. In the course of inquiring about buying filters and coffee makers and stuff like that, I asked them if there was anybody they knew that I could consult for roasted coffee. They suggested trying to get in touch with Alfred Peet. They knew him by reputation. Peet had been doing business with them since 1966 or so.
So I called out to Peet’s store in Berkeley. His business had really taken off. There were lines out the door — I mean all day long. He was a phenomenon.
“I cannot believe that a country as rich as America was drinking such bad coffee.”
That was one of the things that Alfred Peet said when he came to America in 1963. Peet had been raised in a family of coffee roasters, and tea importers and tasters.
In 1963, there might have been two or three little roasters in San Francisco. Of course San Francisco was then, and still is, a big center for importing green coffee.
Alfred Peet had a larger vision when he opened his first coffee bean store. He imagined that stores like his would exist in almost every neighborhood.
I called Peet’s store least a half a dozen times. I would not have much luck getting through to speak to him. Peet was a very gruff Dutchman, or he could be. Once you got to know him, he was an extremely sweet man. But he had a very gruff side to him.
I’d made a list of questions to ask him. Every so often I’d gird up my courage and say, “I’m gonna try it again.”
Finally, I got to talk to Alfred Peet. I’m essentially saying to him that I would like to have somebody teach me about the coffee business. He basically responded that he had no interest in doing this. But finally – I have no idea what prompted him – he said, “Okay, come to California and we’ll talk about it.”
Well, I’m sure he thought, “This is the end of that, no way he’s coming to California.” But I did go to California.
What was that like when you arrived?
There was this old guy who worked for him who was even gruffer than Peet. I didn’t know if I was ever going to get to see Peet because this old guy was very off-putting. If you needed a front man to protect you, he was a good one.
I did in fact get to talk with Peet that day. We talked some time, and then at a certain moment, Peet said we would go out and have dinner. So we went out and had dinner.
Did you and Peet become friends right away then?
You know, I think we made some connection or I don’t think he would have continued, because he didn’t particularly need to help me. He had plenty of business for himself.
We agreed that he would roast coffee for me and ship it back to Texas — actually during that period he was doing the same thing for Starbuck’s up in Seattle. He would roast their coffee every week and ship it to Seattle.
You stayed at Peet’s for how long?
For a couple of weeks. And then my wife, Linda, came out and basically did the same thing. We spent a lot of time working in the Menlo Park store because it was a quieter – Berkeley was like a mad house all day long.
We worked serving customers, grinding coffee. I observed Peet roasting coffee. We went through the whole process – of course I have no earthly idea how much of that I absorbed, if anything, because it was such a new world.
FINDING THE STORE ON JEFFERSON SQUARE
We went back home and started looking for real estate. There weren’t that many options. Finally I found this space in Jefferson Square. We finished it out — put in all these wood cabinets and bins. They were built by the three Potts brothers and their brother-in-law from Bertram. They built everything, including putting in this wood floor.
I had thought about having a fish market. Fortunately I didn’t do that. Because I wasn’t good at using a knife. I had a hard time filleting fish.
The general feeling among people who knew me was “You’re going to what? You’re going to make a living selling just coffee?” People worried about me.
I had absolutely no business experience or anything. It is amazing I’m still in existence today. It was amazing I was in existence a year from the day we opened the store.
I guess it was just dogged determination – I mean we didn’t really have any money, we got by because we just lived simply.
We sold coffee beans that Peet roasted for more than a year and finally, as Peet had done with Starbuck’s, he said, “Look, you’re getting too big for me to supply. I will help you find a roaster and give you some basic instruction about how to roast.”
So you went out and learned to roast from Peet and you were roasting coffee yourself from then on?
Well I was attempting to roast. I guess my quality was decent but I had definitely not mastered the art. I learned very conservatively and probably with a certain amount of fear about what I was doing – about catching things on fire, which can happen.
I had a warehouse downtown first, and then in 1978 I built the warehouse in Manor and moved the 22-kilo roaster over there.
Peet helped you find that roaster?
Yeah, he actually found it. He went down to to some place in California, found it, checked it out, said this would be fine to buy.
Originally when I started roasting in the warehouse in downtown Austin, I’d roast at night. We were roasting at night and having numerous visits from the fire department about smoke, which is not fun. You’d kinda get this feeling in your gut when you heard the siren — they were coming to visit to see what was burning up.
When I put the roaster into Manor, I had an afterburner built that burns the smoke off, so essentially there’s no pollution. I mean you put out a little bit of heat but that’s about it.
When I first started roasting, I had sacks of green coffee bought from Peet. Later I was able to access a little bit of green coffee in New Orleans. Not much, but you could get solid Colombians.
Even after I got up to where I would buy a 250-bag container of coffee, I continued to work in concert with Peet because I did not trust my instincts enough yet. He had great instincts. You knew you were really going to get good green beans.
How did you learn to roast in the style you do now?
Peet and I would talk about roasting. A lot of it was trial and error. A lot of it. I would send samples back to Peet for him to look at and check out.
Would he call you back or would he write you?
Sometimes both. Sometimes he would mail me a little written report.
Roasting is just doing it a lot. It’s the same way with tasting coffee. You’d have to do it, do it, do it. You have to taste, taste, taste. Roast, roast, roast. That’s because you’re never totally on automatic with these things.
You have to watch everything every time. There’s no formula. I mean theoretically I guess there are some people that roast with a computer — that you can figure out the moisture content in the beans, et cetera, et cetera.
Our roast is from experience, a combination of roasting and tasting. That way when you look at that coffee as it’s roasting you know how it’s going to taste. It’s an eye-palate relationship.
There’s always something to learn, there’s always something to watch. I can say that almost every time I go roast coffee it’s somewhat of a new experience. When you dump 60 or 70 pounds of roasted coffee out of the roaster, there’s something about that aroma, you just never get tired of doing this.
AN INTERESTING “WHAT IF?”
There was a time back in the 80’s that Alfred Peet tried to get me to come to California and work with him. At that time, between business and family, and having always lived in Texas, I decided not to go. As I look back on it now, it’s an interesting ‘what if?’
I wonder, if I would have gone, would that have extended his career? I have no idea. Working with me might have shortened his career.
He might have thought, “I definitely know I want to retire after being with him for a year.” We had such different personalities, different mentalities, different skills. He loved being a machinist, and I barely knew which end of the screwdriver to use. So I don’t know how that would have worked out.
How is your roasting style similar to, and different from, Peet’s?
Interestingly, I feel like I am roasting like Peet previously roasted.
There’s this style on the West Coast of the darker, the better. Peet did this to some extent, but then his philosophy changed back. I am probably roasting coffee like he did originally, and in the style he moved back to.
Starbuck’s tends to roast a little bit darker. That’s the reason a lot of people talk about how Starbuck’s coffee seems to have a little edge in the cup.
These days, there is a trend toward blonde coffee and lighter roasts. Some of these coffees are roasted so alike as to be, I would say, undeveloped. I mean they just don’t taste properly to me. They have a grainy taste, almost the taste of drinking wheat. You get a lot more acidity, a little more sourness out of the cup.
The other day I saw a coffee advertised at eight ounces for $69.00 or something like that. Alfred always hated the idea of expensive gourmet coffee. He thought coffee should be of good quality and it should be priced like an every-day product — just like good bread, good cheese and good wine.
What do you look for when deciding what coffees to buy?
There are 20 coffees out on a tasting table at my San Francisco importer. It’s a blind tasting. You might find that a good, solid Costa Rican is excellent. Then next to it, a coffee from a specific plantation and really the only thing for certain is it’s gonna cost more. There are times when you might taste it and say, “Yeah, that’s worth 20 percent more, I’ll take it.” There are times when you find the regular solid Costa Rican is actually better than this coffee that’s put forward as special.
You can have outstanding coffee and you can have different taste within beans. Meaning a Costa Rican is going to taste different from a Kenya. In the end everything has to do with what’s in the cup.
You’d be looking for varietal distinction. Some coffees are quite distinctive. There’s like nothing tastes like ( Achenia, <<<< SPELLING ) for example. There are other coffees that might run together a little more, but some coffees are truly unique in flavor and so you’d want to be sure that ( Achenia <<<< SPELLING ) tasted like ( Achenia <<<< SPELLING ).
You’d also be looking at green beans just to just to be sure that there were no defects in the green beans and that the coffee had a good, clean green smell to it.
If a coffee is not processed properly you can have ferment in it. That’s an important thing to detect, because you can find ferment even in top quality coffee.
You detect a fermented bean when you ground the coffee. If it ever happens in the store I always take that grind and let everybody in the store smell this. We don’t sell it. When you’re dealing with top quality coffees like we do, day in and day out, normally you don’t find any defects.
What are the most valuable things Alfred Peet taught you?
About quality, about consistency, about freshness.
His philosophy was always that there should be the shortest distance between the man roasting the coffee and the person drinking it.
That was his basic instinct, and in some ways of course that required a smallness in business. That’s the reason he never had 100 stores or something. He always said that he would have considered himself a failure if he ever saw a package of his coffee setting on a supermarket shelf.
Obviously, businesses become different things, like Peet’s today is a publicly traded company. They just become different. There’s not anything wrong with them. They’re just different now.
Is that one of the reasons why you kept your business the same all these years?
Yeah, yeah. I had opportunities where I could have had four or five stores, that but I never wanted to command an army.
We’ve talked about quality, consistency and…
Speak to each of these individually. Quality first.
It all starts with the quality of the green beans.
In every country there are different qualities of green beans. There’s coffee all the way from the bottom which would probably still be drinkable, up to the finest in flavor. All of these coffees have a use. A farmer can sell his coffee to be used in instant coffee or it can be used in a grocery store coffee. So if you don’t want to charge more than $4.00 a pound for coffee and still make a profit, well there’s obviously a limitation about how much you can pay for it.
I am hard about price, in other words, if I am gonna pay up for a green coffee I want there to be a real reason for it. All the green coffees we buy are in the upper strata. They are the best that a country has to offer.
Green coffee importers know what you want and they know what you demand in quality and so this becomes what you’re offered. They also understand that if there is a coffee that’s quite a bit better, that you’re not going to hesitate to pay 20 percent more for it. So when they come across these nuggets they’ll pick up the phone, call you and say, “Hey, I have a coffee here you’d be interested in.”
Trying to have a consistent roast. I mean that’s always a battle of trying to have stuff that’s roasted just what you’d call on the mark. Not a hit under or a hit over. It’s a constant thing with every roast – to try to really hit the mark. It’s not to say that if you miss the mark slighty, you turn out anything that’s not drinkable or not of good quality, or anything that most people would even notice the difference — but I notice the difference. So I have to be the protector of my customers. It’s my job to be sure that what they’re plunking their 10 bucks down for is really enjoyable.
Then there is the third thing which is –
You know, just freshness.
That’s the reason we roast several times a week, to have coffee that’s always in top condition. Good quality coffee will last a long time. So you don’t necessarily have to have a coffee that’s straight out of the roaster. It’ll taste different, the longer you have it after it’s been roasted. You’ll get a little change in the flavor profile but it’s not like it ever really gets bad – it’s just different.
Can you talk about some of your greatest memories?
I don’t know. It’s hard to think too much about what I would call specific incidents because coffee is just such an everyday business. It’s why I tell people that work here: we are just doing the same thing, day in and day out because that’s what we’re trying to provide — a consistent, good, everyday product.
So it’s not like you have huge moments or something like all of the sudden you discover something that nobody has ever discovered before. That’s just not the nature of the coffee business. What people want at the breakfast table every morning is to have this consistently good quality coffee.
I can, however, remember a certain thrill when we actually started making a little money. That was good. as opposed to not making any money.
And you do take a lot of pleasure from people’s comments and them expressing their thoughts about their appreciation for the consistency of the business.
Part of it too, is just the fact that you’ve been able to survive and do a good job of this for a long time, as most businesses don’t last anywhere like this long.
People ask, “Aren’t you ready to retire?” And I say, “No.” I actually enjoy the business more than ever.
You talk baseball with some customers?
We have people that come in who we’ve known a long time. So you’ll have kind of a special relationship with them.
We were talking about Doug Sahm earlier. Every day he was in town, Doug he would come in the store. He was always wanting to talk about baseball for a few minutes, and how bad traffic was getting in Austin, et cetera.
So one story about Doug, this must have been back in the 80’s — actually, another customer had to remind me about this happening — but Doug came in the store one morning, he was wearing his pajamas, his house shoes and a night robe.
There was a customer there, she said, “I was kinda shocked to see somebody that apparently had just gotten up out of bed and put their robe and house shoes on and came over for a cup of coffee.” And I said, “Well, I think Doug kinda considers this store to be an extension of his house.”
What is your earliest memory of coffee?
Gosh, my mother brewing it in a percolator. I have no idea how old I was.
I know my parents had coffee every morning but it wasn’t a big family ceremony as much as it is in Europe and different places. I have some remembrance of my father taking a thermos of coffee in his lunch pail to go to work.
When did you first drink coffee?
Probably as a teenager. I might have had coffee and milk or something like that growing up, but I was a teenager before I would have a cup of coffee in the morning. I was probably drinking Folgers or Maxwell House or whatever.
When did you first have a great cup of coffee?
A great cup of coffee with any kind of knowledge about what a great cup of coffee was, would have been at Peet’s.
He always had three coffees brewed for tasting. He had a coffee of the day, a decaf, and a French Roast. Of course, Peet would say he was more of a tea man than a coffee man. So he would also have a pot of tea brewed.
I was just having whatever the customers were having. And plus the fact you were imbued with all of these aromas and all this stuff in his store. It’s the same. It’s – honestly, it’s the same smell you get when you walk in my store. You know this kind of distinct, kind of bold, sort of warm, inviting aroma… I mean it’s great.
What I notice is that people really love you.
I’m in some ways an insular person — not so much when you get to know me. I was always a shy kid. That’s kinda stayed with me for all my life, maybe too much. I might have been better at business if I would have had more of a personality, I mean I realize I have one but… People tell me that customers come here because of me, and I think, “Really?” The first reason people should come here is because of the quality of the coffee. That’s what it’s about, because if the coffee is no good it wouldn’t matter if I was a nice person.
What do you look for in the people that work for you, and what you appreciate about the people that you have?
I’ve had people who have worked here for more than 20 years. We don’t have a lot of people who work here, but a pretty fair majority of people who do have worked here for at least several years.
And so what do I look for? I look for people who are willing to provide a high level of customer service. I look for people who are what I would call nice and who treat customers and each other very well because if you think about “What do we sell?”, we want to sell a top quality product and we want to serve the product well.
It’s not like going to a supermarket where people dig their own beans out and grind them and take them up and pay for them. These beans are actually sold by us to someone else, so we have a personal relationship to the customer. When they come in and buy even $5 worth of coffee, they’re buying it from another human being.
What values do you instill in your business?
A sense of selling an honest, top-quality product for a fair price. And just the day in and day out of how you treat your customers. So, selling a good product and treating people right. Which to me is a pretty simple formula. I think we get it right most times, most days
If you could consider that you have a mission, what would you say it was?
I don’t know if I have anything as grand as a mission. I mean, I may.
In other words, I don’t have a mission that I think I’m gonna save the world or anything like that. I would say that maybe if you have a role or a job it is providing a product that might improve the enjoyment level of people’s lives every day — something that consistently does this. This may go wrong, that may go wrong, but at least the coffee is good.
Because it’s hard to find things in life that are consistent. Most things are good one day and not so good the next day. I guess if we can provide some kind of consistent enjoyment to people – that the coffee is good regardless of what else is going on in their life, which I have no control over. I do have some control over the coffee. As long as they brew it correctly. [laughter]