Discoveries: Peerless Coffee in Oakland keeps its history in mind

Published: Sunday, May. 6, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H
Last Modified: Friday, Mar. 1, 2013 - 12:34 pm

OAKLAND – Rest easy, this is not another rant about how there's a Starbucks, sometimes two, on every corner. That complaint itself has become as vexatious as the coffee company's ubiquitous signage (in Freight Sans Black, for you typeface freaks) on strip malls far and wide.

This, rather, is an appreciation of an original Bay Area coffee purveyor – and its newly renovated museum – located on only a single corner in a tucked-away section of Oakland's port district dominated by produce warehouses and urban-renewal lofts.

Peerless Coffee & Tea, 88 years old and still grinding away, provided daily caffeine fixes for jittery Bay Areans some three decades before Starbucks' corporate overlord, Howard Schultz, was even born.

It's small in number – really, there's only that single retail storefront at company headquarters – but rich in history and aroma. The Vukasin family has seen it all over the years while running Peerless, founded by Yugoslavian emigre John Vukasinovich after he tired of toiling in the Nevada gold mines.

The family business has outlived San Francisco's early dominant roasters, Folgers and Hills Bros. (now both owned by large corporations). It has weathered the rise of retail behemoths Starbucks and Peet's. And it has, in recent years, welcomed small artisan Bay Area coffee start-ups such as Verve and Blue Bottle into the fold.

Through it all, Peerless has mostly lived up to its name. Its blends, which read like a United Nations General Assembly roster, grace the menu at some of the Bay Area's toniest restaurants, including multiple James Beard Award-winner Gary Danko in San Francisco and Michelin-starred Cyrus in Healdsburg.

In 1993, when the San Francisco Chronicle, forever infamous for its 1960s coffee-bashing banner headline "A Great City's People Forced to Drink Swill," performed a blind taste test of all the city's coffee purveyors, Peerless was the clear winner. (Starbucks? No. 7.)

Yet, if you haven't heard of Peerless, you are not hopelessly behind the caffeine curve. The company likes its relatively low profile despite its lofty reputation. The Vukasins have never thought of going retail and they don't need to advertise much because, well, they don't need to.

Its one nod to acknowledging its place in the pantheon of Bay Area coffee lore is its small but nostalgia-brewed museum, a labor of love for the past 10 years of matriarch Sonja Vukasin.

Once a cramped alcove tucked between the electrical room and the roasting vats, the museum this month has reopened in an expanded on-site space designed by Ted Cohen, the architect behind the well-received Oakland Museum.

The mementos are all the Vukasins', though. Husband George Sr. (and, now, son George Jr.) were too busy cupping brews, blending varietals and jetting off to Central America to sample product to concern themselves with things like history and legacy.

But Sonja, who served as company president until 2010, loved to rummage around the basement and storage facilities, unearthing relics such as cast-iron grinders, hand-painted signs from Peerless' opening decade and dusty urns dating from the Jazz Age.

So rich and full-bodied is her love of all things coffee that Sonja didn't stop at just Peerless objects d'art. She's collected grinders from Guatemala to Norway; a stone mortar and pestle from Costa Rica; generations of plug-in percolators, glass to aluminum; and a 1922 Model T Ford depot hack that they occasionally use for promotional purposes.

When you tour the museum – call or email ahead; there are no set hours – you'll be pleased to find that the docent is the doyenne. Yup, Sonja leads the tours.

She greets you at a door at the side of the retail storefront wearing a mocha blouse printed with coffee logos and steaming cups, a coffee-cup necklace and a (last pun, honest) perky bearing.

She leads you through a set of double doors and past the factory floor, where you nearly swoon from the aroma of beans a-roasting. If she finds leading another tour a grind (OK, so I lied about the puns), she doesn't show it.

"It's funny," Sonja says. "People will say to me, 'Oh that wonderful smell.' And then I have to remind myself to smell (the coffee). I've been around here so long that I don't even smell it anymore."

She remembers to remember her history, though. Sonja was a schoolteacher before she met George 45 years ago. She lives to impart knowledge about coffee and about Peerless. She flits and buzzes around the artifacts, exclaiming with caffeinated glee.

"See that photo there? That's the walk-up counter from 1924, just after they opened," she says. "I took everything from that original storefront and used it in our (remodeled) retail store. Our counter now is the original wood. The (original) sign is up, too. It's all just silly sentimental of me.

"Oh, I forgot! Look straight up."

Sonja points to a hand-painted red-and-white sign bolted to the ceiling.

"Says 12 cents a pound," she says. "I mean, really, 12 cents? And then it says 'Freshly Roasted 20,000 pounds.' Come on. He didn't have 20,000 pounds (of coffee in 1924). But that's just somebody who's a dreamer and wants to be successful."

Peerless, true to its founder's vision, has been successful – on its own terms. Over the years, say George Sr. and Sonja, people have clamored for them to open franchises or, alternatively, sell the company to a corporation that would mass-market its brand.

"We don't compete," Sonja says when the "S" word is broached. "We don't compare."

Maybe because there is, frankly, no comparison.

PEERLESS COFFEE MUSEUM

The Peerless Coffee Museum at the company headquarters at 260 Oak St., Oakland, offers special tours in its renovated museum.
Tours are set by appointment only.
Call (800) 310-5662 or email tours@peerlesscoffee.com.
For more information: www.peerlesscoffee.com/company_museum.asp

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Read more articles by Sam McManis



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