A cup of Joe with the Georges

Peerless Coffee is based out of a low-slung, light industrial building built in 1976. Established in 1924, the company has seen it all: wars, boom and bust cycles, and several sports teams. Three generations of the Vukasin family have helmed the company, and they are Oaklanders through and through. They have every intention and desire to continue being a pillar of the Oakland business community. How that can continue with a ballpark proposal lingering in the immediate future is uncertain.

As I approached the building, the aroma of roasting coffee nearly overwhelmed me. I sipped an au lait inside the store as I waited to interview George Vukasin, Jr., who runs the business, and George Vukasin, Sr., who left the company to his children and still is a major presence there. George Sr. is also well known as a major proponent of Oakland and East Bay sports, as he was pivotal in making the Coliseum complex come into being. I sat down in their front office and we talked for nearly two hours. I could’ve easily sat there for another two as George Sr. recounted stories of Oakland sports glories past, but I had to start writing. Maybe another time.

We first talked about how the Coliseum deal was struck. George Sr. happily took on the role of historian, recalling how the late developer Bob Nahas put together a coalition of civic and business interests, including the elder Vukasin, to get a sports showcase built in the East Bay. They quickly focused on a site in East Oakland. The land was undeveloped, with the major owners being the Port of Oakland, EBMUD, and PG&E. Deals were struck with both utilities to maintain easements at the complex while a land swap was negotiated with EBMUD for a parcel on High Street, where the utility’s maintenance yard now resides. The Port of Oakland handled the land deal, as George Sr. was a Port commissioner at the time. The process from first discussion to groundbreaking took 2 years and was unencumbered by CEQA laws or other red tape.

The Coliseum Commission ran the complex for close to three decades. They understood what it took to keep the complex in the black, such as the need for 130 event days at the complex every year. While that should be easy to do with 81+ baseball games, 7-10 football games (sometimes), and 41+ basketball games, occasionally things would run tight. One particular year, Vukasin couldn’t figure out what to do so he called rock promoter Bill Graham and asked for help. Graham magically produced 7 days of Grateful Dead shows at the arena, the proceeds of which allowed the Commission to take care of the debt service.

Around the same time, Amnesty International contacted the Commission about putting on a single concert, which would be held at the stadium. Walter Haas, who had put a good deal of money into renovating the Coliseum, was not particularly fond of having a large number of concertgoers trampling his pristine baseball field, as evidenced by the declining number of Day on the Green concerts during the Haas era. When Amnesty International inquired, Haas and Roy Eisenhardt unequivocally said no. Vukasin and others tracked Haas down at the Pacific Union building in San Francisco, where they asked him to grant permission face-to-face. Haas, ever the gentleman, relented on the spot and the concert was held, as long as there were assurances that the field would be kept in good condition. No contracts, no litigation, just a talk and a handshake.

We shifted topics to Victory Court, and that’s when George Jr. was able to speak more. He was contacted 18 months ago by Mike Ghielmetti and Jim Falaschi, who suggested that Victory Court would be a studied site for a ballpark, and that the Peerless Coffee property was one of the targeted parcels. That led to a meeting with Ghielmetti and the City of Oakland’s real estate manager, Frank Fanelli. Little happened during the meeting, and no direct contact has been made since. Once George Jr. caught a man surveying and measuring the property. The man couldn’t divulge who sent him, and George Jr. asked him to leave. The man got in his car and went around to the back of the property, which is accessible from both Oak and Fallon Streets. George Jr. saw him surveying that side and kicked him off the property for good. To this day the Vukasins don’t know who the appraiser was, let alone who sent him. They asked me who I thought it was, and I guessed that it was MLB, contracting the work as part of its “due diligence.”

I asked why the current site was so crucial, and George Jr. went into great detail about how the business worked. While the plant looks like a 70’s office building from the outside, the nondescript façade hides many unique features that are part and parcel of what makes Peerless Coffee run the way it does. Among the important features:

  • The floor is an extra thick concrete pad, which allows the company to stack huge bags of coffee from floor to ceiling without worrying about weight.
  • The plant’s location near the port lowers transportation costs.
  • Peerless rents out some surplus space in the back, with the knowledge that the space can be repurposed for a plant expansion if need be.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is the process of roasting coffee itself. Peerless does a lot of custom roasting for different clients, such as restaurants and hotels. This makes it important for the company to have extremely precise control over the variables that come into play, from humidity to the shape of the natural gas flame as the beans are being roasted. Roasting the beans an extra five minutes can severely change a coffee’s flavor profile, according to George Sr. George Jr. followed that up, saying that the process is so delicate, a transition period of 18 months would be necessary, including construction time. During that time, both facilities would be running (or under construction), allowing the new plant to work out the kinks and match the old plant’s flavor. The fact that coffee is perishable, coupled with the change of equipment and environment, mandates such a long transition. It’s possible that a lot of product will be wasted along the way. When another coffee roaster built a new plant to replace an old one, it supposedly took 6 months or more after it started operating to “dial in” the flavor properly. Essentially, the coffee is roasted based on the conditions in that exact location. Any changes would require a costly upheaval.

In preparation for what could happen, George Jr. and his sister, Kristina Brouhard, have done the necessary background work just in case. As I was talking with the two Georges, Kristina, an attorney who is also Peerless Coffee’s legal counsel, popped in for a moment and we exchanged pleasantries. They’re getting ready to (and I’m paraphrasing here) man the troops.

That’s not to say that manning of any troops will be needed. I asked the Georges if, as I had suggested last week, a ballpark land grab extended as far out as Fallon Street, instead of the taking of all land between Oak Street and Lake Merritt Channel. They both said they’d be fine with it, though no one has explained to them why all of the land was needed. They’re perfectly content to be neighbors to the ballpark, and their comfort with their specialized operation suggests that they aren’t in this just to hike up the price on their property. George Jr. doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for the business, but he was very clear in saying, “This business is our family.” And right now it’s threatened by the ballpark. Already, customers are asking if Peerless is going out of business, which is clearly not the case. If you think that battling perception is hard now, just wait until the word gets out about a ballpark.

There were plenty of other anecdotes about Wally Haas, Herb Caen, Franklin Mieuli, Ken Hofmann, and strangely enough, former Warriors bust Chris Washburn, who George Sr. said had a “Rolls Royce grille on a Volkswagen.” George Sr. lamented how the revenue chase has made getting a fair stadium deal so difficult. We talked about how genuine Oakland’s (and Let’s Go Oakland’s) efforts were, and I was surprised how much we were all on the same page. There was a bittersweet moment in realizing that it is possible that Oakland, so defined by its sports franchises and full of history, could lose two or all three of them. George Sr. would’ve preferred a ballpark at Howard Terminal. George Jr. would’ve liked a downtown site. They told me how much they appreciated my work, and I thanked them for the time they gave me to discuss the issues. As I got up to leave, George Sr. had the most surprising parting words for me,

You never go over the owner’s head. If you call the commissioner, the first thing he’ll do once he gets off the phone is call the owner.

Coming from a man who has heard and seen it all – especially in Oakland and in dealing with pro sports teams – those are sage words.

47 thoughts on “A cup of Joe with the Georges

  1. @ML – Interesting piece. After reading it I came away with an overall theme. You presented such things as the Vukasins kicking the appraiser off their property, the nature of their business and how moving elsewhere would be incredibly difficult and costly, the conditions of an “exact location” for roasting, the potential “manning of the troops” from a legal standpoint, and how their business might be threatened by the ballpark and a potential consumer backlash could ensue. You added that you had a conversation about how Let’s Go Oakland’s efforts were genuine as well as how Oakland could potentially lose all three franchises. Lastly, George says that going over an owner’s head is unwise. This piece left me with the impression that Oakland has zero chance in this whole affair. Everything I’ve been reading on several different blogs over the last two days repeats the same things over and over, such as “Oakland… is not viable; has no corporate support; has no money; has no fans; cannot support an MLB team,” etc, etc, etc. Now this piece makes me think that VC could never happen without a long and nasty fight, which would likely kill the deal altogether. The prevailing theory seems to be that Oakland is in effect wasting their time in this matter and that the deck is stacked against them. It seems that if Oakland is trying to put together this study, if the pro-SJ theories hold water then Oakland must be going through the motions to pacify pro-Oak fans so that it appears that they tried. I cannot see any other explanation for putting in all of this effort if it’s so obvious to everyone that this whole thing is the definition of futility. Could BS be thinking that Oakland’s proposal will definitely fail and he will not even have to issue a recommendation? Your thoughts please.

  2. Rather than fight Peerless Coffee and the Vukasin’s for the land, I would love to see the coffee roasting plant incorporated into the design of the stadium with the coffees roasted at the plant available for consumption inside the park and beans available for sale to take home. I have had Peerless coffee and it’s great. This would be a perfect blend (pardon the pun) of what makes Oakland so unique…a mixture of industrial and sports all in one site. Could be a win-win for all.

  3. ML: this is a very nice human interest story showing the real impact of big developments on the “little guy”, and I salute you for taking the time to drive up and talk to them ! How ironic the owner was involved with the Coliseum !
    .
    In this light I just want to remind everyone every so often to take a break and remember that in every story there are winners (fans having a spanking new park, owners having a more valuable team and more income, community pride, tax increments) but there also people that will lose out such as these fine coffee roasting cornerstones of their community.
    .
    Of course, no matter where the new stadium will be build (unless in the Coliseum parking lot) there will be a lot of people like the ones portrayed. Taking it back to San Jose at Diridon they would be the people working at Stephen’s Meat (now a parking lot), AT&T (still up and running for now), the gas supply company (interviewed by Seipel April 25th, http://newballpark.org/2010/04/25/merc-lays-out-the-remaining-challenges-for-sj/), etc. etc., and also the countless neighbors (Delmas Park especially) in whose backyard 80-odd times a year suddenly 30,000 people will descend.
    .
    For another such a neighbor’s perspective take a look to AT+T park, where the poor lady lives with a giants schedule in her car, on her fridge, in her purse, not because she is a die-hard fan but because she needs to check it before making a run to the supermarket (http://articles.sfgate.com/2010-04-11/news/20848459_1_giants-at-t-park-new-ballpark). Again, 30,000 winners every game, but how many people not so happy ?
    .
    Not that there are no other positive sides to a new stadium (and a lot of developments are slated to happen at Diridon no matter what), but the coin has two sides. Just a perspective.

  4. @OakAsFan – In the dark, cynical recesses of what’s left of my soul, I believe you’re right.

  5. Though MLB has clearly decided to give Oakland one last, best shot, and Oakland is thus far responding with its most promising ballpark effort in decades, sure, Oakland’s effort could fail. But to suggest Oakland’s current work is an elaborate, costly sham simply to fool pro-Oakland fans is preposterous.

  6. @FSU – Any more preposterous than the actual effort? The Vukasins and I spent 15 minutes talking about how bad Oakland/LGO’s strategy is.

  7. I did some research of the business and property owners at Victory Court. The Vukasin’s might be the easiest ones to deal with. Anyway they own about 2.5 acres of the site. Seems like Victory Court can spare Peerless at the end of the day.

  8. It would be interesting to see an actual financing plan come from the city of Oakland as to how they propose to finance the building of a ballpark and paying for the land and infrastructure. In reality, Oakland has done nothing thus far that has any financial impacts…MLB has been picking up the tab associated with assessing these properties and my sense is that this is beginning to end…expectation will be for Oakland to pay for the EIR and very quickly begin to acquire land at the site…and doing this without any guarantees that a ballpark will be built….much as SJ has done. All of this will need to be done in parallel paths given the timeframe involved. Recognizing that they are also going to have to invest significantly in the ballpark you would expect that Oakland would have a clear financing strategy in place…or would you? Window shopping is fine but at some point Oaklands going to have to start laying out some cash to be considered a serious suitor in this whole affair.

  9. @FSU – how has MLB “clearly decided”? What is so promising on the ballpark “effort”? Does it have viable financial backing? I’m curious to hear…

  10. @GoA’s…you so eloquently said it…put up or shut up Oakland. I hope Oakland City government has long term planning on its agenda as opposed to these short sighted “reactions” they’ve recently portrayed. If they see the timelines involved….2015 baseball stadium, 2017 Warriors lease expiration, 2019?? Raiders stadium, they would realize real quickly that they need to pick 2 or even only 1 of these sports teams as landmark tennants to make it attractive enough for them to stay, otherwise they risk losing out on all 3….

  11. @GoA’s/ST – The financing part is not something we can appraise. Even if MLB turns down Oakland, they don’t have to cite that as part of the criteria. We may never know unless it gets built.

  12. @ML- understood–however, if I was a taxpayer in Oakland I would want to know how they propose to pay for the land, ballpark, and infrastrucuture improvements prior to using money to conduct an EIR and begin land acquisition. After all—not many people I know who would put down a deposit on a house when the were fully aware they couldn’t afford it-

  13. @erw – Well said. It’s funny, there’s a coffee roasting company right near Cahill Park/Diridon too! Barefoot Coffee won’t be affected by the ballpark.

    @GoA’s – Fair enough. We can only hope that some of these questions get addressed sooner rather than later.

  14. @erw—agree with your post and what you point out is the importance of the community forums for those neighbors surrounding the proposed ballpark. SJ has been conducting these going on for nearly several years to gain the trust and support of the community immediately around it. The ideal situation is to make it a win-win for all involved. You’ll never get 100% support but it seems as if SJ has made a concerted effort to listen to the surrounding community and factor in their needs.

  15. Rolls Royce grill on a Volkswagen. I like that.

  16. MLB has clearly decided to give Oakland one last best shot? Where is this news coming from?

  17. someone from MLB or BRC, has contaced LGO, or someone in “the know, in power” that “they” like the Victory Court site. This is interesting. Because clearly, there is a disconnect … Wolff and Selig have both said, that the baseball digest article (re: Oakland being chosen) was wrong. But, someone has told Oakland that starting the EIR for the VC is a “good idea”! That equals, at least, “one last best shot”!

  18. @David- keep in mind that SJ finished its EIR awhile back and has acquired most of the property—and that same BRC group has told SJ leaders how much they like the site down to measuring heights of light standards for a ballpark that has already been designed. of course this is without knowing what the outcome will be—bottom line the message to Oakland is that you had better move forward because you are way behind but there are no guarantees—-once again–as LW said–no one can tell me where I have to build….but if Oakland puts a darn good offer on the table than maybe he could be enticed—-which is what is suprising for me—to show that you are a real contender Oakland needs to show how they propose for all of this to pencil out…and somehow I feel like they have no idea in this area…..and MLB and the BRC are going to give them just enough rope to hang themselves once and for all….

  19. @GoA’s – that sounds correct. I believe pro-SJ and pro-Oakland folks can agree that the process seems to be “stuck” because of Selig. He’s playing both/all sides. No one can tell ol’ Lew where to build, but MLB does have a say in any franchise movement, between cities (where T-rights are not applicable). Or am i wrong on that? Can the D-Rays, pickup and move to say – Portland or Topeka, without asking for “permission”?

  20. no team can move without permission, outside of their given territory that is.

  21. as Jeffrey said…gotta stay within the territory—-but just because the BRC says no to SJ doesn’t mean that LW will build in Oakland or even sell the team. In fact I think he would have more leverage than ever over the city of Oakland. This is where it will get interesting for MLB—if Oakland’s offer doesn’t make business sense to LW and yet the Coli lease runs out in 2013 and Oakland wont extend it because of what they are trying to do for the Raiders than you gotta wonder how MLB will handle that–a city that says they want to keep the team but not willing to put a good offer on the table and kicking the team out of their current home…..which is why I cant figure out why Oakland isn’t putting out the plan on how much they will shoulder to build the ballpark and how much they would expect the owner to shoulder. To go through all of these steps looks like window dressing when there is no interested party sitting at the table–

  22. We always hear about Wolff, obviously, because he is the public face for ownership. I’m wondering if anyone has heard anything about the money guy Fisher and where he stands with all of this. Has he been vocal at all, quoted in the papers, etc.? I would assume that Wolff’s public statements echo Fisher’s sentiments. It could be that Fisher is purely financial (i.e. “here’s what I’m willing to pay) and leaves team and ballpark decisions entirely up to Wolff but that’s just a guess. Does anyone know if he is SJ or bust?

  23. I meant to add that I was wondering if anyone knows for sure if Fisher is indifferent as to where the stadium is located or if he is SJ or bust. After all, he’s got the big bucks.

  24. Fisher has come out in support of San Jose

  25. Maybe the A’s will pull a Cliff Lee with a surprising move back to Philly. :)

  26. @ Jeffrey – Thanks for the reply. Have there been any quotes in favor of SJ and, at the same time, against Oakland? It’s one thing to favor SJ over Oakland but it’s quite another to be dead-set against Oakland period. We know Wolff will not build in Oakland based on his statements. I’m trying to determine if Fisher, the one with the money, would also be dead-set against Oakland should a viable plan be brougth forth. It’s probably impossible to answer without interviewing the man himself.

  27. @Jeffrey – Thank you for posting the link. One of the more revealing quotes to me from the article is when, after talking about the Fremont collapse, it goes on to say: “Finally, finally, he could bring out the option he’s had in his pocket ever since he and Fisher decided to purchase the A’s.” This says a lot to me. Now I know where he stands. Thanks again for posting.

  28. I really like Bill’s idea — to incorporate the existing physical plant into the ballpark, with operations (relatively) uninterrupted. I have no idea about the practicality of it from an engineering/design/traffic standpoint (heck, if the off/onramp building requirements for the proposed stadium are as onerous as described hereabouts, why not go a bit further and improve truck access for the roasting plant as well?), but I would imagine that some sort of co-op-ish arrangement could be made to accommodate both parties — say, some sort of tradeoff between naming/promotional rights (“Cisco Field at Peerless Park”?), coffee/beverage vendor exclusivity (would dovetail with an overall approach of going local/high-quality/high-ticket with food vendors throughout the stadium), land-use/access, and production interruption.

  29. @monkeyball–it most likely won’t be Cisco Field if it is ever built here–they signed the letter to Selig from the SVLG advocating that the A’s be allowed to move to San Jose

  30. OakA’sFan: I think you are taking your quotation out of context, as it wasn’t a direct quote from Fischer or Wolff, but rather from the journalist themselves.
    Monkeyball: as GoA’s pointed out, the SVLG, who the CEO of Cisco is apart of, went out of their way not to mention Oakland at all in their letter to MLB condoning a SJ Baseball stadium. Maybe Clorox and Peerless can have a co-sponsorship like “Whitey Tightie Bowl at Peerless Pier?”. Then again, both have not stepped up to endorse any kind of naming sponsorship, unlike Cisco….

  31. Peerless Coffee is the perfect example of why an Oakland ballpark will not work at Victory Court. There are 15 other businesses who are on the site besides Peerless.

    That is a lot of negotiation and there will be more than a few business owners who will not want to sell as some probably don’t give a “rat’s ass” about baseball.

    All San Jose has left is a welding station that needs to be moved as ATT has settled their case with the city.

    Diridon is due a face lift anyways so the ballpark is a perfect ancillary development to the HSR, BART that will one day be there. Plus it is already in Downtown SJ with good freeway and parking access as is.

    I am all for a Oakland ballpark if it was feasible fiscally and realistically. The A’s should have been in Uptown years ago if it was not for Jerry Brown. Those condos should have been build around the ballpark like they did for Pac Bell in SF. Not as the primary component of the development of that area.

  32. @ST – Duly noted. I do realize that it is a journalist quote. I merely pictured the conversation where LW/JF may have told the writer that they were finally able to look into SJ, which is what they wanted to do since purchasing the team. I do understand that it is the author’s take and that it is not a verbatim quote. I was simply trying to discover whether or not Fisher was SJ or bust or if he would be open to the VC site.

  33. My take, which is no more valuable than any other take, is that John Fisher is all in on San Jose.

  34. Briggs,
    We already knew the funding would be approved for rhe VC EIR. Don’t see how this is a “major step.”

  35. is anybody at the meeting right now?

  36. @ tony d.: Oakland spending any significant amount of money on their ballpark effort is major step. I didn’t say “major breaking new,” I’m just reposting a link. I’m not Perez Hilton.

  37. @Ethan – No, couldn’t make it today and I won’t make it next week either. Also, the meeting doesn’t appear to be streaming.

  38. The article mentioned 1:30 and as of right now, it appears that a different committee has taken over so is there any news on what the vote was?

  39. Just got back from the CEDA Meeting. The item passed 3-1 with De La Fuente the lone dissenting vote. De La Fuente mentioned being burned by the Raiders deal and he does not want to make the mistake again.

  40. @Roscoe – Was that for the traffic study or for the full EIR?

  41. Marine- The full EIR. There really was not much talk of only doing a partial study.

  42. MarineLayer: You state the coffee peeps talked about how poorly of a job LGO and Oakland city are doing. How is that? What SHOULD they be doing? What do YOU think they should be doing.

    I love all the “The city hasn’t done jack….” talk. Um, you do realize that we have an owner right now who had NO intention of every staying in Oakland, mixed with a commissioner who spoon fed the team to Lew, in addition to blocking a pro-Oakland ownership with huge pockets, and has clearly stated that the A’s should never have moved to Oakland – that they have never done very well for themselves, right?

    I get that the City could have done more back in the day. That was like 15 freaking years ago. The A’s ownership has done NOTHING to try and work out a deal in Oakland – most recently Lew doing his “extensive” search (joke) for a site in Oakland, picking one that he knew couldn’t work (while stating he couldn’t do another because it would be too hard to move some powerlines. All the while, he was having secret (and not so secret) discussions with Fremont with one foot out the door.

    He’s lied before and since he’s bought the team.

    That said, with a current ownership group that has put NO effort into staying in town and looking for a solution (but has spent over $25 million to try and get a park done in Fremont, etc), what SHOULD LGO and the city do? I am curious.

    • @yesyeah – Let’s see, where to begin? The could’ve taken less than a year to cull the sites from 4 to 1. They could’ve eliminated Howard Terminal and the Coliseum immediately. They could’ve started some of this work 3 years ago. They could’ve started the EIR process 6-9 months ago. They could’ve contacted landowners more than once in the last 18 months. They could’ve engaged JLDA and nearby residents frequently. They could’ve had public dialogue with citizens every three months about the sites and process. These things aren’t difficult. Now Oakland is in a position where there is zero slack in the development schedule, and even the most minor delay could threaten the project. Is that how you’d prefer things to progress? If you do, fine, suit yourself.

  43. I tried to DVR the meeting but it did not work out. However I did catch the last few minutes of it on KTOP. Patricia Kernighan, an Oakland city councilmember, said that Oakland would not consider alternative sites for an EIR because MLB had chosen Victory Court as their site. Shame on MLB for picking a site that would run some established Oakland businesses out of town or out of business. Shame on Oakland for not speaking up and insisting that MLB consider other sites. I have had a major concern about Victory Court because of the business and existing job displacement due to stadium construction. Oakland has other alternatives. MLB and the city should consider them in this difficult process.

  44. Ethan, Oakland should have put them forth. Long ago. Now it is VC or bust. That isn’t MLB’s fault. They were presented 4 sites, 2 of which had already been dismissed and 1 that is made up of 57 parcels owned by 33 different entities and Victory Court. Which would you pick?
    .
    Yesyeah, who is the “deep pocketed” owner? You realize that one of the concerns about Dolich/Piccini was that they proposed a LOWER payroll for the A’s, right? Do. Freaking web search and you can find this in a couple of clicks.

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