Bill Coffin outside the original Peet’s coffee shop at 2124 Vine St. in North Berkeley. Credit: Janis Mara

Long before the pandemic, the widespread adoption of craft coffee and the recent national coffee shop union drive, Bill Coffin was Employee Number One at the original Peet’s Coffee shop at Vine and Walnut streets in Berkeley.

When Peet’s opened on April 1, 1966, the polio epidemic was the only national health event people talked about, the entire country was drinking Folger’s Instant and there were no baristas, and hence no call for a workers’ union

But the country was on the verge of a coffee revolution, and Coffin was right there at its inception.

Peet’s is widely credited with transforming the industry — after all, the three founders of Starbucks learned much of their craft from founder Alfred Peet — but there’s much more to it than that.

“Alfred was a coffee evangelist,” said Coffin, who lived three blocks from the first Peet’s, which is still operating at 2124 Vine St., and started working there when he was just 15, just a few months after the store opened.

“He spent hours talking with customers, educating them about different blends. He served a free cup of coffee with every pound of coffee, and he deliberately made the coffee strong to get more flavor.”

But changing peoples’ minds – and palates – didn’t happen overnight, said Coffin, who still lives in Berkeley.

A slow start with just two coffee choices

In the beginning, the store was not busy, even on Saturdays. “People were used to American coffee,” he said. “One woman barely got through a cup of freshly brewed coffee and said to her husband, ‘I can do better in my percolator at home,’” Coffin said. “Alfred and I just looked at each other and laughed – after they left, of course.”

Even though the store struggled financially, Alfred Peet stuck to the highest standards, Coffin said.

Essentially Peet’s’ first barista, Coffin made sure a pot was brewed fresh every 20 minutes. Because business was so slow, many times he had to toss an entire pot at Peet’s insistence.

There were always two choices: French roast and one other blend of Peet’s choosing, perhaps Colombian, mocha or the house blend, Coffin said. Peet’s sold teas as well.

He learned about the job by word of mouth. “My parents’ foodie neighbor told me this new store needed weekend help,” and Coffin got his first job. Alfred Peet ran the store on his own during the week.

In the early days, Peet sold almost no coffee in the bean. Customers would make their choices and Peet would grind the coffee in the store. The current practice of people using a coffee shop as a place to work or hold meetings had not yet emerged; there was one counter with five or six stools.

The original Peet’s store opened on April 1, 1966. Credit: Calton/Wikimedia Commons

How Major Dickason’s Blend got its name

Peetniks and foodies alike will appreciate that Coffin witnessed an historic moment: the naming of Major Dickason’s Blend.

According to Coffin, Peet worked with a frequent customer, a retired military gentleman, to develop the blend, tasting many combinations before settling on what was to become Peet’s all-time bestseller.

“Key Dickason and Alfred developed the blend together,” Coffin said. “Alfred told him, ‘I am going to name it after you – Major Dickason’s Blend.’”

Dickason said, ‘But I was a sergeant.’

Peet responded, ‘You’ve been promoted.’”

As time went by, Peet gradually introduced the concept of the coffee shop as a a place to meet others and hang out. And, as attitudes changed, “caffeine epiphanies were not uncommon,” Coffin said.

“People would come in and rave about the coffee,” Coffin said.

Coffin worked at the Vine Street store from mid-1966 to early 1967, returning to work at Peet’s then-Emeryville warehouse in the early and mid-1970s. During his second stint food luminary Narsai David was a regular customer with a special blend designed for him, similar to Viennese Blend, combining French roast and three other coffees.

Coffin mixed the blend in the warehouse. On one occasion, one of the four coffees used in the mix wasn’t available.

“Alfred substituted another coffee that was very like it – and Narsai caught it. It was one-fourth of the blend, but he knew the difference,” Coffin said.

“He told us, ‘It’s still good, I’m not going to send it back, but let’s stick to the original blend in the future,’” Coffin said.

Peet’s’ connection with Starbucks had already been established when Coffin began working in the warehouse.

Inside the original Peet’s during the first COVID-19 lockdown. Credit: Pete Rosos

Starbucks followed in Peet’s footsteps

The three Starbucks founders, Gerald Baldwin, Gordon Bowker and Zev Siegl, learned the roasting and blending aspects of the coffee business from Alfred Peet in the early 1970s. In the beginning, Peet provided them with training and roasted coffee beans.

“When I was working in the warehouse, there was only one Starbucks in Seattle,” Coffin said. “When they couldn’t get certain obscure coffees, like Indonesian or African, Alfred would send them 25 pounds of this, 35 pounds of that.”

The creators of Starbucks patterned their first Seattle store on Peet’s, as well as a small company in Vancouver called Murchie’s, according to Colin Newell, editor of Victoria, British Columbia-based

In 1979, Peet sold the company, which was re-sold several years later to Starbucks cofounder Baldwin, “but that was after my time,” Coffin said. After a series of corporate mergers and acquisitions, Peet’s is now part of JDE Peet’s, a Dutch-American beverage conglomerate.

“One of the most important things Peet’s did …was introduce the importance of the café as a community meeting place, something that existed in London and Venice in the 1500s and 1600s, but not in the United States. — Colin Newell

After leaving Peet’s, Coffin, now retired, worked as a professional drummer, then became a software product developer at companies including Sybase and WebLogic.

Both Peet’s, now based in Emeryville, and Seattle-based Starbucks have grown tremendously, especially Starbucks, which has 35,000 stores worldwide and reported sales of $8.71 billion in the first quarter of the fiscal year 2023.

There have been many more changes since Coffin left. Three Peet’s Coffee locations in Berkeley and Oakland recently filed petitions for union elections in June. It remains to be seen how the union activities will play out, but according to an industry expert, one thing is for sure: due to the efforts of Alfred Peet and his successors, “we live in a time when we have the best coffee we’ve ever had in the history of coffee consumption,” said Newell.

Echoing Coffin’s comments, Newell said, “One of the most important things Peet’s did is introduce a great quality of coffee, a selection of coffees people could develop a relationship with,” as well as introducing the importance of the café as a community meeting place, something that existed in London and Venice in the 1500s and 1600s, but not in the United States.

“Alfred Peet brought something very special to Berkeley and San Francisco, creating a wave that is still rippling through time.”  

Janis Mara has worked at the Oakland Tribune, the Marin Independent Journal, the Contra Costa Times, Adweek and Inman News, an Emeryville-based national real estate trade publication, winning California...