Coffee is a business

Antique Grinder

Peet’s Coffee just bought majority share in Intelligentsia coffee and acquired Stumptown Coffee earlier this year. So, the bitching has begun about “selling out” and how Peet’s is “just in it for the money”. Yes, they are, because every business is in it for the money. Intelligentsia and Peet’s weren’t handing out bags of roasted beans for free on the street, they were selling them with the intention that selling their coffee would make enough of a profit to cover their costs and make a modest living.

Intelligentsia brought a lot to the table as far as how they perceived coffee as a business and pioneered fair trade and environmentally responsible growing along with their artistry in roasting those beans so that the best flavor was achieved from them (they started as only roasters and grew into the coffeehouse business). When Intelligentsia started in 1995, there were lots of coffeehouses, the idea of “thirdspace” was relatively new, and coffee was not being described in numbered waves. Intelligentsia was able to build a reputation for excellence slowly over time and is properly credited with one of the driving forces behind the start of what we now call “third wave” coffee.

Peet’s Coffee and Tea was founded in 1966 by Alfred Peet, who brought his experience of Dutch coffee to America and essentially started the idea of gourmet coffee in America. Peet’s was influential enough that Starbucks used them as a business model. Peet’s has changed hands a couple times since 1966, but has managed to maintain a very good reputation since then, even through their stumble in 2001 after they took their stock public, the business remained stable and their stock has showed progress ever since then. Generally, the opinion of Peet’s coffee (as a product) is positive and has been consistently so throughout its history.

So, we have two major coffee roasters and purveyors who have merged together to some extent in a business deal (controlling stock is not a merger). Both are known for quality coffee and have shown longevity in an industry where most new businesses go away within the first three years. Their success is, in part, attributed to their business acumen, and this latest business decision was calculated to be beneficial to both business entities. The customers have stood by each individual company (well, as much as any group of chronic complainers can — yes, I count myself among them) through years of business decisions and actions and held with them because they loved the product.

Yes, we will find stuff to bitch about, but the fact is that we threw our cards in with a business that exists to make money. We got lucky that Intelligentsia and Peet’s made decisions unrelated to coffee that we liked (or at least tolerated). The fact is that Intelligentsia still maintains control over its stock, just a minority share of it. Since Peet’s has been navigating changing markets in coffee for nearly half a century, I have a degree of faith that the decisions that are made in the future will be good for the environment, good for the coffee growers, and good for coffee snobs like me.

Stop complaining about “selling out”, when you exchange money for goods or services, that’s business. Business behaves in ways that is beneficial to itself and will always seek improved profits. Expecting it to do anything else is naive at best. Frankly, I am hopeful for the outcome of this merger and hope that more people will be introduced to the complexity and joy of coffee in a way that makes them want to know more and, more importantly, drink better coffee. The quality is unlikely to worsen and there are even opportunities to bring smaller roasters back into the game as people become more used to high-quality coffee.

As a consumer, you vote with where you take your dollars. Don’t buy Peet’s or Intelligentsia if you don’t like what happened with their business. In most major cities there are roasters and coffeehouses that will fill your need and it puts dollars directly into your local community. If you don’t live in a city where you have that kind of access, considering learning to roast beans — the equipment and beans can be had for cheap and you can make what you like. Building a skill set is never a bad thing.

Businesses either make money or fail if they make too many bad business decisions in a row and we all move onto the next thing…like consumers always do.

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