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Obituaries

Alfred Peet, 87; founder of California-based chain of coffee stores

September 01, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Alfred Peet, a Dutch immigrant who grew a coffee empire in California starting with his first tiny shop, Peet's Coffee & Tea, in Berkeley, has died. He was 87.

Peet died Wednesday at his home in Ashland, Ore., the company announced without specifying the cause.

"What made Peet's so strong was that Alfred Peet had so much knowledge about coffee and tea," Jerry Baldwin, a Starbucks founder and member of Peet's board of directors, told The Times on Friday.

Peet learned the coffee trade by helping his father in the family's small coffee roasting business in his hometown of Alkmaar, Holland. After World War II, he moved to London, where he joined Lipton tea and apprenticed in the tea business.

He worked in that industry in Indonesia, then still a Dutch colony, and moved to San Francisco in 1955.

"I came to the richest country in the world, so why are they drinking the lousiest coffee?" Peet asked himself soon after he arrived in California.

It didn't take long for him to understand the problem. During World War II many people had to settle for coffee made with inferior beans, Peet said in a 2003 interview with the Medford Mail Tribune in Oregon. Coffee drinkers never raised their expectations.

"The same thing happened in Europe after the war," he said. "A lot of taste was lost and had to be brought back for a new generation not brought up on the stuff before the war."

Peet worked in the coffee import business for his first few years in San Francisco before setting out on his own in 1966.

Using high-quality beans and a manually controlled roasting system, he produced coffee that was nothing like what he had tasted in local diners and coffee shops.

"By word of mouth, time and again people came from whatever country and said, 'At long last. That's how coffee used to be back home,' " Peet recalled in 2003.

Very quickly, his first store, at Vine and Walnut streets near UC Berkeley, became the West Coast's caffeine mecca.

The neighborhood was soon dubbed "Gourmet Ghetto," because of all the specialty food shops nearby.

The restaurant Chez Panisse, a home of new California cuisine, is also an easy walk from Peet's first store.

He continued to introduce new coffees and blends to customers, all with his signature deep-roasted flavor. As business grew, he opened three more stores in the Bay Area, but the original remained a landmark.

Peet, who was born March 10, 1920, was pressed into service for the Third Reich in Germany during World War II and witnessed the Allied bombings there in 1944.

His reputation in the coffee business was well in place in 1971, when he was approached by a group of entrepreneurs who asked him to provide his roasted beans for their new venture, Starbucks, in Seattle.

"Peet supplied us with roasted coffee, and he taught me how to roast coffee," Baldwin said. "He was very generous."

Peet sold his business in 1979 but remained involved as the coffee buyer until 1983, when he retired.

Baldwin and partners bought Peet's in 1984 for $4 million. At the time there were four shops, all in the Bay Area. There are now more than 150, few of them outside California.

Peet never fully retired. He continued to consult with coffee companies until recently.

His survivors include a sister, a daughter and two grandchildren.

--

mary.rourke@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jerry Hirsch contributed to this report.

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