How Peet's Starbucked Itself 

The iconic East Bay company that pioneered gourmet coffee with a small business ethos has grown increasingly like its mega-chain offspring.

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None of this — the aggressive customer service, the increasing focus on speed, the growing pressure on employees — is particularly uncommon among large corporations or in food service, but it's especially ironic given that many employees and customers still see Peet's as a small, homegrown operation. Or, as Davids put it: "The thinking person's alternative to Starbucks."

"I decided to work at Peet's — and I think a lot of customers still go to Peet's — because I thought of it as a really responsible, cool company," said one employee. "Now, I feel like I might as well be working at Starbucks."

For a company that started small and was once known for having knowledgeable, well-trained employees, recent years have brought on a big shift in the quality and character of the retail experience. "It just used to be a completely different feel — you could walk in and have the sense that these people were really into coffee and into customer service," said Bodeanu.

Where Peet's was once known for its involved and thoughtful training process, spanning several weeks, employees say they're now mostly left to learn on the fly. "It's all on the job," one employee said. "We'll have a new featured coffee or something and the manager will come over and talk to me about it for thirty seconds. Customers ask me stuff and I don't know."

Moreover, the employees say, dissatisfaction within the company is palpable — and growing. Many of the people interviewed for this story said they knew people who had become so disillusioned with the changing culture they decided to quit, while others spoke of increasing grumbles among the staff.

"All the stories I've heard from people who worked two or three years ago are of this place that was so great to work at and so much fun," one employee said. "Even when I started [about a year ago], there was a sense of fulfillment from the job, because you felt like you were knowledgeable about something, you were learning something. Now, it's a constant cycle of complaints."

In an industry where customer service is paramount — and at a company that once prided itself on knowledgeable and friendly staff — the increasing focus on efficiency and its attendant unrest have consequences on the consumer side. "The idea of a Peetnik — of someone who's knowledgeable with coffee and tea — is not there anymore," an employee said. "We just want you to get out the door as quickly as possible. We don't have the time to sit there and talk to you. There are people who still work for Peet's — there are very few now — who can talk to you in great detail about different types of coffee. That was a regular occurrence, but it's fading away."

"It's just not the same," a former employee said. "It's no longer the place where your barista is trained in every type of bean, growing region, and brewing process. They're trained to deliver one portion of a product that is streamlined and is supposed to be exactly the same at every Peet's."

Given all this, it's not surprising that rumors about an eventual Peet's-Starbucks merger swirl nearly constantly. Employees said customers regularly ask if and when the company will be bought, and as recently as this spring, the media lit up with a new (and unfounded) rumor that the two companies were in talks to merge.

For his part, Small doesn't think it'll happen. "There's always been speculation about them buying Peet's, but I personally don't think it's in their business plan," he said. "At this point, Starbucks has basically bought up everyone except Caribou and Peet's. If they were to get Peet's it would be just for the real estate. And I think Peet's is likely to grow and continue to maintain the value set they have as a public company with lots of stores. Because there is no going back, unless they want to bankrupt the company and start over again."

Both companies have remained publicly tight-lipped about any possible merger, and employees said they hadn't heard any rumblings behind the scenes, either. But at any rate, all of this speculation may be insignificant anyway.

"It kind of doesn't matter if we get bought by Starbucks," one employee said. "We are Starbucks."

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