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.