Alfred Peet founded Peet's Coffee and Tea back in 1966. The bespectacled Dutch immigrant worked in the coffee trade before moving to San Francisco after World War II. This was long before the haute coffee trend hit the mainstream and your friends started gushing about French presses and cold brews. In the '60s, Americans were drinking low-grade mud. Needless to say, Peet was appalled.
When he opened his first coffee shop in Berkeley, California, his brews were unlike anything patrons had ever tasted. The idea quickly took off, and Peet's became a cult favorite among what was one of America's hippest consumer groups.
Peet's now operates storefronts in eight states plus Washington, D.C. And its coffee is available in cafes across the country as well as mainstream retailers like Target, Walmart and Giant. It was acquired by JAB Holding Co., the same firm now behind Keurig Green Mountain, for $974 million in 2012. But like many in the social good space, Peet's was given autonomy to keep its operations consistent under the new parent company's umbrella.
With roots in a place and time like 1960s San Francisco, it's likely no surprise that social consciousness was a part of Peet's story from the start. Some of the same artisanal coffee growers who worked with Alfred Peet over 40 years ago are still part of the company to this day. One of those growing collectives is the Falla family in Guatemala.
"The longevity of the relationship stems from the superior quality of their beans, and also because of the care they show for the environment, their workers and the surrounding community," Doug Welsh, VP of coffee and 'Roastmaster' for Peet’s, said of the Fallas.
"As our relationship has evolved over the years, we wanted to do more than buy coffee from the Fallas," Welsh told TriplePundit. "We started donating to the school the farm sponsors as well as to the clinic the family hosts, which provides basic medical care at no cost to their workers and family members."
The company's four decades of work with the Falla family helped inspire its social mission. Its latest effort, People and Planet, features curated coffees that highlight the brand’s heritage of working collaboratively with farming communities. The line includes nine coffees, such as Guatemala San Sebastián, a sharp and sweet blend that comes from the Fallas farm in Guatemala's Antigua Valley.
Through the effort, Peet's is looking to engage consumers and connect them with the people and places behind their cup of coffee. The effort focuses on promoting three practices already near and dear to the company's heart:
That all sounds great. But with the number of so-called 'sustainable' coffee labels on the market, what really sets Peet's apart? If anyone would know, it's Doug Welsh.
Welsh once worked at Peet's first store on Vine Street in Berkeley. Nearly 25 years later, he's now the third person to hold the esteemed title of Roastmaster. We spoke with him further to find out what really makes a socially-conscious cup of Joe.
Most of Peet's People and Planet coffees bear an environmental certification, if not several. But beyond certification, Peet's introduced its Direct Trade business model to build upon its longstanding relationships with farmers.
Direct Trade was also partially inspired by the Falla family, Welsh said. "[Working] with coffee growers like the Fallas is an integral part of how we source coffee," Welsh told us of the Direct Trade model. "It’s rooted in our belief that quality is correlated to the well-being of those who produce our coffee and to the natural environment."
Through the program, Peet's invests in a project in each coffee-growing community where it does business. But the real task is directly engaging with these communities to find out what they need, Welsh said.
"Our Direct Trade producer relationships are based on constant dialogue and continuous improvement over time," he told us. "Coffee farming is hard work. And we believe we are being the most supportive when we listen to our farmers, learn what works and what does not, and work together to make improvements."
Alfred Peet opened that first shop with one goal in mind: Bring better coffee to the American market. The close-knit relationships that followed were initially based on product quality, and the company's motto is still "coffee first." But the business structure that formed around these relationships -- now called corporate social responsibility (CSR) but once known quaintly as "the right thing to do" -- helped Peet's survive where others failed.
"We want to help farmers move from producing average-quality coffee to producing high-quality coffee, and to grow more of it," Welsh said. "There is growing appetite, literally, for high-quality coffee. And we want to help farmers take advantage of this opportunity."
Through its Farmer Assistance program, the company supports smallholders with lessons in farming practices, as well as business development. As they become more empowered entrepreneurs and their quality and yield increases, coffee farmers can earn far more for their crops and give their entire families a better quality of life.
"TechnoServe was working with coffee cooperatives across East Africa to help them improve crop quality and yield as part of a multi-year program funded by the Gates Foundation," Welsh recalled.
The java gurus at Peet’s were initially tasked with giving farmers feedback on their product. "As the coffee produced by these cooperatives increased in quality, we were inspired to create our first blend of African-only coffees and source directly from these hardworking farmers," Welsh told us. "This created a mutually beneficial and reinforcing relationship that we continue today."
The modernization of coffee farms in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia meant a tasty new blend for Peet's and upward mobility for thousands: The company pays a premium price for the high-quality coffee, allowing farmers to improve their financial conditions and that of their entire communities. "We’ve seen many farmers — through their cooperatives — decide to build schools and install power lines, among other community improvements," Welsh said.
The company's supply chain in Nicaragua tells a similar story. There, Peet's sources coffee from a group of 200 women farmers, which its team calls Las Hermanas. "Since we started purchasing their coffee in 2003, the women of Las Hermanas have transformed their own lives, the lives of their families, and the quality of life in their communities," Welsh told us.
"Now that they are vital economic contributors in their families, the women have developed greater self-confidence, and they have been able to access financing to purchase additional land on which to grow more coffee."
The cooperative now funds medical care and youth programs in their community in the highlands of Jinotega, Nicaragua, and their coffee is included in Peet's Los Cafeteros Blend.
Are we sensing a pattern here? Each of these success stories, like so many in the sustainable business community, stems from a genuine relationship with the people that make up Peet's supply chain.
And communicating this connection to customers -- an effort it hopes to increase with the People and Planet line -- allowed the company to foster a genuinely authentic brand that continues to compete in what is now a woefully crowded marketplace.
Additional People and Planet coffees will be announced throughout the year, as well as events where Peet's will invite its customers to engage around the initiative.
Image credits: 1) Pexels 2) Courtesy of Peet's Coffee
Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs.