Monday, May 27, 2013

Criterion Coffee & Tea comes to an end

Thanks to Andrew Barnett for sharing this short article about the closing of San Francisco's legendary Freed, Teller & Freed after 114 years in business.

For those unfamiliar, Freed's had a small but lovely retail store on Polk Street for many years and a much larger wholesale business. Like so many others before me, I went there to buy some coffee and tea and ended up getting an education:  in coffee, tea, brewing, passion, authenticity, value-for-money and understated good taste.

I can't remember who originally told me to make the pilgrimage to Polk Street. It  might have been Mike Spillane from the wonderful tea importer G.S. Haly & Co. The aroma of freshly-roasted coffee was of course captivating, and (this would've been in the early 1980's) it was the first time I'd seen what I would later realize was classic Full City roasted coffee: even chestnut brown with no oils, the peak expression of flavor and aroma. They had real Yemen Mocha, and Mocha Java that was the antithesis of the mucho jiva being purveyed elsewhere, and vacuum pots, and Zassenhaus grinders - and people eager to tell you just how to use all of the above!

Then there was the tea, which I soon learned was the deepest passion of owners Augie and Karen Techeira. Single-garden Assams, painstakingly selected Ceylons and, usually, Hao Ya A (or B when it cupped better) Keemun, the finest Chinese black tea available. It was only much later in my coffee and tea career that I gained enough experience to realize that the selections on offer at Freed's were the product of a level of cupping and sourcing expertise that a newcomer like myself would most likely be unable to approach in a lifetime no matter how hard they were willing to work.

Nowadays the origin of great (I can't bring myself to say "specialty" since the S.C.A.A. has made the word into a guarantee of nothing but inflated price) coffee on the West coast is credited to Peet's, but Mr. Peet learned many of the ropes during his stint as an employee at Freed's, which had been offering great coffee for over half a century at the time. This isn't to take anything away from Alfred Peet, whose passion for excellence and superb palate would have made an impact no matter what, but merely to acknowledge that said passion and the insistence on equal billing for tea and coffee had deep roots.

Over my years at Starbucks and Allegro I'd run into Augie Techeira at trade shows, or talk to him on the phone from time to time (mostly when I was in desperate need of some great tea, or feeling particularly down about the state of the industry). So often I'd be looking at Freed's current price list and would see retail prices for coffee and tea that were roughly on par with what better-known roasters were charging their wholesale customers. I'd order some samples and maybe talk to Augie or Karen on the phone and would invariably discover that because they were buying on cup quality alone they'd rejected expensive and supposedly prestigious coffees and teas their less knowledgeable competitors had happily overpaid for, and were passing on the savings to their customers. In today's environment of $7 cups of under-roasted, often poorly-selected single origin coffee (served with a hefty dose of attitude on the side) it's hard to imagine that there once was a business to be had in selling people great coffee and tea to enjoy at home everyday, but there was.

From the article I opened with there's this explanation of why Freed's is finally closing:

 “they are unable to find suitable business successors that would meet their standards, and the customers’ standards."

Now I still recall being very impressed during my early years at Starbucks when the founders said (and meant) that they'd rather be out of a given coffee than substitute a lesser grade, but here we have a business that's been around for over a century that would rather close than inflict a watered down or corporately co-opted version of itself on its customers. 

How do you build a brand that can last a hundred years? When you say "quality without compromise" do you mean it, and if so do you mean it just for employees and farmers, or do you include customers in the equation to such a degree that you'd rather shutter your doors than bilk them? All worthwhile questions to ponder as we mark the end of the real beginning of great coffee and tea in America. 

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